White God opens with a startling sequence: A teenage girl rides her bike through the streets of Budapest, which appear to be deserted. There isn’t a single person or moving vehicle in sight as she pedals around, looking for something. Then, from around a corner, some dogs run out and start to chase her. More follow. And more. In a matter of seconds, more than 200 hounds are on her trail, the girl pedaling furiously. But what do the dogs want? Are they following her or chasing her? And what happened to all the people? What the heck is going on here? And how did they get those animals to perform on cue like that, stampeding like bulls, without so much as nudging each other?
All those questions will be answered, except for the last one. White God is the rare sort of movie in the era of computer-generated special effects where you can’t believe your eyes, because what you’re looking at is real. Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó (Delta, Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project) has a serious message in mind, but first he wants to seize your attention and show you something you’ve never seen before. After that daring opening, White God sets the bar high: Whatever follows must live up to great expectations.
The good news is: You won’t be disappointed. In a flashback, we learn the girl is named Lili (Zsofia Psotta), she’s 13, her parents are divorced and she dotes on her mixed-breed dog Hagen as if it were her child. When her mom, whom she lives with, has to fly out of town, she drops Lili and her pet off with her petulant father (Sandor Zsoter), who lives in an apartment building that doesn’t allow pets and refuses to pay a tax required by a new law that favors pure breeds over mutts.
Lili takes Hagen to school with her, hoping to hide him in a closet while she attends band class. But the dog escapes, the teacher kicks her out of school and her father, now furious, throws Hagen out of the car and abandons the animal on the street.
The first half of White God plays like a spinoff of Babe: Pig in the City or a Disney movie about a lost pet fending for itself as it tries to find its owner. Hagen learns how to cross highways (attention dog lovers: your heart will be in your throat). He befriends another stray and runs away from animal control vans. He’s harassed by a bum living on the street, and he’s finally caught and sold to a man of brutish demeanor who has a specific purpose in mind.
To say any more would ruin the first of several 180-degree turns White God takes. Anyone who wasn’t able to sit through Amores Perros should take heed: What comes next isn’t easy to watch. But Mundruczó is up to something far grander and more ambitious than putting the viewer through the wringer. Although the allegory may seem facile, White God pulls off the difficult trick of exploring the consequences of exploiting the lower classes by using cute dogs as symbols for the oppressed and downtrodden. While Lili searches frantically for Hagen, putting up fliers and roaming the streets, her beloved pooch is undergoing a series of trials that may forever change the animal’s demeanor. If they’re ever reunited, will Hagen recognize Lili and revert back to its old self? Or does relentless cruelty change living creatures — human and otherwise — irrevocably?
Mundruczó wants to make us consider how much duress and hardship people can endure before losing their humanity, and the use of dogs to explore that question works a lot better than you might imagine. Realism is critical in order to keep you from rolling your eyes at the screen, which explains why the film is at times unbearably brutal. But it all pays off with an astounding, extended climax that is as rousing and exciting as it is frightening — one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had watching a movie. After seeing White God, you’ll never take the phrase “man’s best friend” for granted. Also, you won’t believe your eyes.
Cast: Zsofia Psotta, Sandor Zsoter, Lili Manori, Laszlo Galffi, Szabolcs Thuroczy.
Director: Kornél Mundruczó.
Screenwriters: Kata Weber, Viktoria Petranyi, Kornél Mundruczó.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 120 minutes. In English and Hungarian with English subtitles. Vulgar language, graphic violence, gore, realistic depictions of animal cruelty. In Miami-Dade: Miami Beach Cinematheque, Aventura; in Broward: Cinema Paradiso Hollywood.