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White God
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by Jay Seaver

"A girl, her dog, and his army."
5 stars

I know a lot of people who love horror movies, and they tend to be the same people who care passionately about animal welfare. It's not that surprising; contrary to popular belief, you need empathy to get the most out of horror rather than become jaded, and I suspect that many genre filmmakers have something like "White God" kicking around their heads as a result. Actually making it is the trick, and most who try don't manage anything near what Kornél Mundruczó pulls off - a small masterpiece.

15-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is pretty fond of her dog, Hagen, a sweet mixed-breed that seems to be her best friend, especially now that she's being sent to stay with her father (Sándor Zsótér) while her mother visits Australia for three months. Unfortunately, Hagen is mixed-breed - a mutt - and in Hungary that requires a license that her father will not pay for, and Lili's father forces her to abandon Hagen on the side of the road. Lili will search, but while Hagen initially falls in with a friendly-seeming group of strays, but the other people he comes across won't treat him nearly as kindly as the girl still looking for him.

There are points when the audience might want to fast-forward through the sequences that focus on Lili; compared to the parts with the dogs, they can seem like just another movie about a bitter kid. Zsófia Psotta is pretty darn good in the role, though, and Sándor Zsótér's father may not always come across very well, but Mundruczó and his co-writers make their story interesting, more than just a parallel to how her mother seemingly abandons her much like the dogs,even if it often plays out behind the scenes. From the way Lili is clearly the youngest player in her youth orchestra, I suspect that she's been accelerated enough to become isolated, although there's never much talk of that or any need to show how her father starts to warm to her.

Which is fine, because most moviegoers have seen that a lot and it would take time away from Hagen and the other dogs. MundruczĂł and the trainers do some extraordinary work here, all the more so because a great many of the dogs, including the ones playing Hagen, were shelter animals (both the opening and closing titles assure us that all found permanent homes). MundruczĂł doesn't ask them to do things that ever seem beyond a dog's capability, but he and his crew certainly get them moving in the right direction to tell a story, and they certainly seem to communicate with each other, more through eat-twitches and stares than barking (Luke and/or Body, the dogs playing Hagen, also have the sorts of faces that people can read a lot into). For all that, though, they are always still dogs rather than dog-shaped people, animals not truly able to understand the seemingly arbitrary and too-often cruel whims of human beings.

Some of that mistreatment is fairly graphic - although MundruczĂł and the editors are pretty good at letting the viewer fill what he doesn't show in as opposed to actually showing dogs and people get mangled. It's great that he doesn't pull his punches, since it both makes some tough-to-ignore points about animal abuse and makes it very easy to understand just how Hagen becomes what he is by the end. Not in terms of the organization along the dogs that seems to become something fantastical, but the urge to revenge, with tension coming from whether Hagen will see Lili as the person who loved him or the one who abandoned him - and whether he's even capable of telling the difference any more.

All of this sets up some quite frankly astonishing bits of action, as Mundruczó and his crew marshal dozens of dogs and either sends them through the city's back alleys with dog-catchers in pursuit or, later on, turns the tables by having them race through the main streets and buildings in a swarm that makes the residents' terror thoroughly understandable even though, after all the viewer has seen happen to Hagen, the dogs are due a great deal of his or her sympathy. While the scale of the animal action is the most immediately impressive part, there's really not a single component of these scenes that is not extremely well-done: Mundruczó establishes the geography of a place very well if more is going to happen there than just dogs running through it, and as before, plays for high stakes but frequently lets the audience imagine the worst. For the finale, he brings things up a notch, as he and editor Dávid Jancsó cut between Hagen and Elli in a way that gives both human and animal stories equal weight, and composer Asher Goldschmidt does a downright fantastic job of blending the chase music in with that of Elli's concert.

The whole group keeps the tension up right through the final scenes, which are perhaps just what the audience could expect but are also well-earned, thrilling and happy and sad as the movie fades to black. It's the movie that I suspect every moviegoer who loves animals and thrillers has wanted to see for a long time, and executed in such a thrilling manner that even those who haven't been waiting for it will be quite impressed.

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originally posted: 04/13/15 07:35:17
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Cannes Film Festival For more in the 2014 Cannes Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2015 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Palm Springs Film Festival For more in the 2015 Palm Springs Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 European Union Film Festival For more in the 2015 European Union Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/14/15 Kyle Sad but great allegory. 5 stars
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  DVD: 28-Jul-2015



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