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Kornél Mundruczó’s White God

Kornél Mundruczó, Fehér Isten (White God), 2014, digital video, color, sound, 119 minutes.

ALTHOUGH I WOULD NOT be the person I am today had I not seen Bambi as a child, I do not recommend taking kids to White God, which is similarly tender, harrowing, heartbreaking—and violent. And although the central characters of Kornél Mundruczó’s mongrelized movie are an adolescent girl and an animal who are bonded to each other, the film is nothing like Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966), which is both the greatest and the most unbearable movie ever made. In fact, White God made me despise the masochism and passivity of Balthazar’s human protagonist (Anne Wiazemsky). The girl can’t help it, indeed.

Part allegory—the myths of Spartacus (come to free the slaves) and Orpheus (who transfixed all living things with his lyre) refigured in contemporary Hungary—and part coming-of-age drama (albeit one that mutates into a dreamlike fantasy of revenge and reconciliation), the movie is remarkable for existing coherently on so many cinematic planes at once and for generating multiple metaphoric readings, all of them about power and a state-determined caste system in which the “fit” reassure themselves of their superiority by brutalizing and murdering the “unfit.” Given the recent electoral victories of Hungary’s neo-Nazi party, Mundruczó might well have dramatized the conflict between Magyar insiders and immigrant outcasts. Instead, the outcasts here are nonpurebred dogs—and, as it happens, a few years back the right wing in Parliament proposed a tax on anyone who keeps a mutt in their home, effectively condemning these dogs to abandonment or euthanasia. From a dog’s point of view, and in point of fact, humans have the power to bestow life or death. Hence they are, collectively, the White God of the title. (While I don’t rule out a play on the title of Samuel Fuller’s White Dog [1982], which is also about racism, I doubt that Fuller was much on Mundruczó’s mind.)

White God crosscuts between the divergent paths taken by thirteen-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta) and Hagen, the dog who has been her closest companion, after Lili’s father, Daniel (Sándor Zsótér), tosses Hagen out of his car and speeds away with Lili trapped inside. Lili’s parents have undergone a bitter divorce, and Daniel takes out his anger on Lili and her adopted stray by refusing to pay the pet tax. Lili searches tirelessly for Hagen, a lively Labrador/shar-pei mix with intelligent eyes, even after she pretends to her father and her authoritarian music teacher—she is a gloriously lyrical trumpet player—that she doesn’t care about the mutt anymore. While she quickly loses her innocence, her love for her dog is incorruptible. An extremely gifted actor, Psotta manages to make Lili’s inner thoughts and desires opaque to the adults around her and completely transparent to us. Hagen’s journey is more difficult than Lili’s, and we never imagine it will have a good end. After barely evading speeding cars, a murderous meat vendor, and the nooses of the dogcatchers, he’s captured by a beggar who sells him to a dog trader, who passes him on to a fight trainer. Brutalized and drugged with uppers and downers, Hagen learns to kill in order not to be killed himself. When he is finally jailed in the pound, he uses the lessons he learned—and the canines his trainer filed to rapier-like points—to tear out the throat of the man who is taking him to be put down, escaping into the streets of Budapest with an army of dogs tearing after him.

Live dogs, not animations or animatronics. The dogs had to be real for us to have as visceral, kinetic, and emotional a connection to them as to the humans on-screen. Mundruczó has dedicated the film to Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó, famed in the 1960s and ’70s for the dazzling camera movement in films such as The Round-Up (1965). Working with cinematographer Marcell Rév and editor Dávid Jancsó (Miklós’s son), Mundruczó achieves a choreography for camera that is both spontaneous and purposeful. Rév’s fluid, handheld lensing, synced to the dogs’ movements, is never intrusive, but thinking about it after the fact, one can only marvel at its virtuosity. Except for Hagen—who is actually played by two California canine brothers, Luke and Body, trained by Teresa Ann Miller, whose father, Karl Lewis Miller, trained Fuller’s “White Dog”—the 250 mongrels in Hagen’s army came from shelters, and homes were found for all of them after the film wrapped. White God cannot end as happily, although the final scene is as transcendent as anything I’ve ever seen in the movies. It is extraordinary because all the seams are showing and yet we want to believe that what is happening on-screen could actually happen. Transcendence arises out of the struggle to suspend disbelief and in the knowledge that it is only a momentary reprieve from horror.

White God appears this month in New York at New Directors/New Films (presented by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, March 18–29) before opening in select cities on March 27.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.