“White God,” the fifth feature from Kornél Mundruczó, is a blistering but questionable experiment that delivers a timely arc where you believe you watched something great, but you just don’t know why.
The film’s most polarizing feature, and biggest mark against it, is the heavy use of handheld camera which acts like a kamikaze dive bombing your third eye. It’s almost too much to handle, which is usually done out of a plan or out of stupidity.
Considering this was the first film of Mundruczó I had ever heard about, let alone seen, I have to venture that the man incorporates these elements on purpose and not incompetence, so for that credit is due.
For as much as the story is unveiled, it is the mash-up of genre where Mundruczó finds his palette. Mundruczó has conducted a quasi-opera where a coming-of-age- buddy comedy-family-drama- teen-romance-Italian-Neo-Realist-horror saga evolves within the sphere of apartheid, emotional suppression and, ultimately, insurrection.
The main storyline is the relationship between Lili, a 13 year old girl, and Hagen, the stray mixed-breed dog set astray by State law. Lili is played with extreme delicacy and maturation by Zsófia Psotta, in her screen debut. Her Lili stews in her adolescence as she faces the conformity of adulthood and hates what has become of her predecessors.
Her relationship with Hagen creates the film’s strongest, most devastating story thread. She believes herself to be Hagen’s overseer by pure adolescent morality, but is forced by her father’s fear of the Law to cut the dog loose, sending him on a trip through Hell he can only respond to.
It is throughout the film’s first half where our characters face the similar obstacles of repression, thanks to a series of archetypes such as gangsters, law enforcement, a disgruntled tenant and Lili’s music teacher.
Hagen is eventually captured by a bum and sold to one of those lower caste gangsters who deals in selling strays to trainers for underground ring fights – and that trainer is fresh out of jail, ready for a new beginning.
“You’ve still got a heart,” he whispers to the dog as he feeds it sleeping pills. The beady eyes of the poor animal shows it can become the perfect animal with the right mix of steroids and brutality.
What he does to Hagen in the name of turning him into a king-hell beast kicks you in the gut. It’s almost too simple, almost predictable. You expect this journey, and you know it to be savage, but Mundruczó plays it with such absolute simplicity that you come away wishing you had more but glad you didn’t get it.
The politics of “White God” cannot be ignored or denied. Apparently a lot is going on in Hungary for Mundruczó to apply so many layers to what is essentially a film about revolution. Its second half begins with the escape of nearly 300 strays from the pound in a break-out led by Hagen.
They flood the streets in order to obstruct and enact revenge on only a few specific wrong-doers, injecting a hard, honest dose of Pontecorvo into the mix. The 40 minute revolt, parallel to Lili realizing her role in the symphony, is the most passionate sequence, showing a true breadth of what Upheaval actually means.
In order to get the point across, Mundruczó used dogs to portray “a dispossessed species that was once man’s best friend. But man has betrayed them, and in turn, they revolt against their former masters and companions in order to validate their existence.”
And the animals do not fail at providing an offbeat but unique view of mortality which gives the film its own language. Hagen (played by twin strays Luke and Body) gives a hell of a performance. It is a rare feat when a dog is the best actor in the film and it is not a knock against the actual film. Hagen becomes the face of the oppressed, those hungry for a better life and pissed it is kept from them.
It’s obvious the man sees humans as having that same superiority complex with each other, and therefore will continue to prove history correct by resorting to that damn reptilian nature. The allusion to man’s apartheid against himself hovers over the film but never gets in the way or in your face. It’s the same as a random man informing another about the wrongs, yet actually reveals a solution instead of pointing his finger.
As the revolt carries forward, revenge is enacted upon distinct characters for their role in the system. Putting Hagen in the lead shows another twist where the brutality enacted upon him by the trainer grants for him to become a vicious leader in return.
In particular, there is a shot of him stepping out from the shadows as the trainer falls victim to circumstance. It has that grandson-type glimpse of Frank walking in from the desert to see Harmonica’s brother hanged in “Once Upon a Time in the West,” which is one of about three dozen films “White God” has elements of, even if the comparison is somewhere in left field.
The power of “White God” doesn’t settle until the last frame, where we’ve come to the climax of the uprising and Lili’s complete realization of herself. The two then collide into one last, graceful twist where Lili tames the animal’s vengeance and orders it to recognize the unity that neither can survive without. It is a truly powerful scene where the circle comes ‘round and pushes the film even higher as a message of peace.
Ultimately, the film succeeds by never running from what it establishes. The level of care with which Mundruczó handles the multitude of storylines reveals a director who understands the ethos of his time. Outside of a few technical mishaps, the film is an effort to be acknowledged and argued over. And with this offering, Mundruczó earns the right to be considered as a potentially great filmmaker.