One of the best performances of 2015 comes from Luke and Bodie – mixed breed dog brothers – playing Hagen in Kornél Mundruczó’s White God. Owned by Lili (Zsófia Psotta), Hagen finds himself on the streets of Hungary after a series of events. It’s this sudden abandonment that provides the narrative thrust for White God – a film that looks at how man’s best friend is treated in the world and how they could react.
Going into White God, and knowing that there was a lot of dogs involved with the film, I was afraid that it would go the Amores Perros route and have real dog fighting and abuse in the film. Fortunately, thanks to some of the best canine acting in the film, it’s not the case. In fact, supplant the dogs in this film with a slave or a refugee, or an abused wife, and you can see that this story has been told many times before – just this time we’re looking at it from dogs perspective. What’s most interesting is that this is a look at the different ways that dogs are owned and controlled – with added nods to how people as well are ‘controlled’ by those higher up than them.
Psotta’s Lili is a thirteen year old girl who is thrown into the care of her father as her mother heads off for a scientific expedition in Australia. The last words her mother says to her are ‘you must obey your father’ – a slight nod to the idea that we’re all servants to someone. Almost straight away, he’s talking about sending Hagen to the dog shelter. After an altercation at Lili’s band practice where she tries to hide Hagen in a closet, her father leaves Hagen by the side of the road – abandoned.
A small complaint about White God – and probably my only complaint – is that it spends a touch too long with the human characters who are just a little too one note to get a full emotional kick from. But, you don’t go into watching White God hoping it has great human characters, you go into it to see the canine characters and what’s going to happen with them. Mundruczó’s direction crafts a fully realised character with Hagen, as well as Hagen’s small Jack Russell friend, Marlene. Even though the human characters are one note, it does help build the crucial relationship between the viewer and the canine’s.
The film that sprung to mind when watching White God was Steven Spielberg’s War Horse. In that film, the horse was a simple vessel to show the different facets of war. Here, Hagen’s story is not used as an allegory for the cruelty of humanity; instead it is an assessment of man’s involvement with canines throughout time. Through Hagen’s eyes we see him transformed from being a caring companion, to a pack animal having to fend for himself, to being turned into a fighting dog. As he is offhandedly (and sarcastically) referred to earlier in the film – Hagen is ‘an elephant’, and it’s his memories of those who have done him wrong in his life that fuels the ultimate redemption at the end, which has some of the most spectacular scenes of dogs running through the streets of this unnamed Hungarian city.
As mentioned, the dog fighting is not as visceral and real as the fighting in Amores Perros – and it’s to the credit of Mundruczó that he manages to create these frightening scenes with such powerful impact. Yet, they’re not played for high emotions, in fact, it’s just another notch on the hard road that Hagen is going down, which makes the eventual redemption all the more pleasing to watch. Special credit has to go to animal trainer Teresa Ann Miller who trained and guided the 200-225 dogs in the film and helped master the spectacular climactic scenes.
Even though the human characters are slight, the core performance by Zsófia Psotta is rewardingly subtle in ways that most other films featuring dogs and kids are usually not. Often you find that the lead child performer over compensates with ‘emotions’ when acting against a dog, but here Psotta’s performance is on point. It’s no wonder why the orchestra she performs with is performing Wagner’s Tannhäuser – a piece which is about love – as her love for Hagen fuels her search for him throughout the film.
Sure, I may not be the best judge of quality when it comes to films with dogs – I’ll happily watch anything with a dog at the centre of the story (why else would I staunchly defend the underrated Because of Winn-Dixie?) – but I can safely say that even without my love for dogs and dog related films, White God would still be a great impactful film to watch. The core story of redemption is a familiar one for sure, but with this particular take on the theme, it feels new and interesting.
I strongly recommend reading the following interview with Teresa Ann Miller: http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/blog/how-200-dogs-were-trained-to-act-in-white-god