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By Samuel La France
Given its spoiler-heavy advertising and the considerable word of mouth following its screenings at Cannes and Sundance and numerous festivals in between, few will see Kornél Mundruczó’s White God without advance knowledge of its climactic set piece of hundreds of dogs running riot through the streets of Budapest. It’s hardly surprising that the distributors, and more than likely the director himself, would be eager to foreground this culmination of the film’s allegorical premise (lifted from J.M. Coetzee), wherein mixed-breed dogs stand in for Hungary’s displaced and dispossessed ethnic minorities—not only because it truly is a stunning sequence, but because its unquestionable force allows the film to gloss over the shakiness of its central metaphor. Well-intentioned but deeply flawed, White God jettisons a nation’s complex history of conquest and miscegenation—not to mention any tangible link to actual legislation or government action that would or might incite social protest—in order to craft an essentialist parable about how some breeds have fetched the short end of the stick.
As part of an implicit social-cleansing campaign, a new tax levied on owners of mixed-breed dogs has left Budapest’s streets teeming with abandoned strays. Dogcatchers operate around the clock, overcrowded shelters do more euthanizing than sheltering, and tattlers report owners to the authorities, who force people to pay up or ditch their pups. It’s no surprise then that the affable mutt Hagen receives a cold welcome when he and his teenage owner Lili (Zsófia Psotta) move in with the girl’s estranged father Dániel (Sándor Zsótér), a former professor recently turned meat inspector, whose squeamish reticence as he slices open a cow heart suggests he has little to no idea as to what makes animals tick. Dániel’s harsh treatment of the well-mannered pooch begins on the very first night: after being relegated to a pitch-blue bathroom at lights out, Hagen sounds a pitiful moan, and only settles down when Lili rises to rehearse her trumpet part in Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in advance of an upcoming orchestral performance. Following successive run-ins with a nosy neighbour and a choleric conductor, Hagen is abandoned under an overpass by Dániel despite Lili’s impassioned protests, a banishment that sets the film’s revenger’s tragedy in motion.
Although being alone on unwelcome streets carries its share of dangers (the morning after he is left for dead, Hagen paws and whines at a lifeless stray in a futile effort to revive it), it also offers an emancipatory freedom for the cast-off canine. Welcomed into a community of strays by an empathetic terrier, Hagen delights in watching from a distance as the dogs scrap, pounce, and piss in muddy puddles. This glimpse of life without a master is just that, and it’s not long before the authorities come to round up the rebels, whose disunity and overriding instinct for self-preservation make them easy targets for the dogcatchers. After a tedious chase that would have befitted Beethoven’s 2nd (1993) more than a festival-circuit buzz film, Hagen is tricked, leashed, and sold to a dog-fight promoter who transforms the affectionate pooch into a drugged-up, snarling killer.
Ostracized, commodified, and now weaponized, Hagen is a genuinely identifiable vessel for the film’s political ends. Unfortunately, Mundruczó decides to double down on his elegy for the dispossessed by paralleling Hagen’s life-or-death struggle with his former owner’s journey of musical education and adolescent self-discovery, progressively losing focus the more he strays from the strays. Operating in territory already well-trod by more insightful directors (e.g., Lukas Moodyson, Mia Hansen-Løve), Mundruczó returns to Lili as, after a fruitless search for her lost pup, she finds convenient respite in the temptations and distractions of incipient adolescence: pining over a hunky pianist, getting drunk (and getting busted) for the first time, reconciling with her father, and assiduously rehearsing her Liszt for that upcoming concert.
The radical discordance between this been-there-seen-that Künstlerroman and the canine rebellion brewing in the streets is only exacerbated by the film’s formal inconsistencies—which Mundruczó, in the film’s press kit, circumvents via the pretentious self-exculpation that “I don’t have any great desire to create form.” Rather than suffering from a lack of form, however, White God is split in two by the tonal and narrative incongruities of a twinned pair of plots that have no business being in the same film. On the canine side, Mundruczó’s attempt to make his pooch protagonist more relatable via numerous, cloying point-of-view shots spoils the otherwise effective tactic of shooting the majority of Hagen’s narrative from below snout-level; meanwhile, in Lili’s tale he employs the hackneyed “technique” of jerking and shaking his camera with abandon as shorthand for intimacy, inner struggle, mounting tension, or what have you.
Thankfully, the film’s climax brings something of a formal corrective as that epic “puprising” gets underway and Hagen’s canine army heads for the city centre to attack its bourgeois overlords on their home turf: the camera is mercifully steadied in a series of well-composed tableaux and smooth tracking shots, its stability reinforcing the unity of the rampaging dogs while counterpointing the chaos of their rebellion. That said, there’s considerably less menace to this initial movement of the revolt than we might expect, as purses get snatched, fenders get bent, and yuppies with puppies get overrun by the wave of mutinous mongrels. And the threat is dispelled completely as the sequence progresses and it becomes clear that Hagen’s agenda, far from full-scale revolution, is to systematically maul a select few dirtbags that he’s encountered throughout his terrible journey.
Satisfying as this string of comeuppances may be, the fact that personal vengeance trumps an overthrow of the larger power structure that cultivated this climate of exploitation reveals the threadbare nature of Mundruczó’s allegory. White God invokes the threat of underclass revolt only to neuter the very notion of a minority uprising and cast aspersions upon the feasibility of revolution as a tool for political change. The most subtle, yet perhaps most telling, evidence of the film’s blissful ignorance of its own implications is the musical motif that serves as one of its primary structuring agents. Liszt’s famous Rhapsody, the tune that Hagen identifies with his former master, is heard no less than a half-dozen times in the film: in rehearsal, in performance, dissolving in and out of Asher Goldschmidt’s melodramatic score, and even appearing in a Tom and Jerry cartoon that plays on a television in the animal shelter’s processing room. After their initial attack on the city centre, the dogs interrupt the teenage orchestra’s performance of the piece, which prompts Lili to run off one last time in search of her missing mutt. Master and mongrel are finally reunited at a slaughterhouse, where Hagen’s aggression toward Lili confirms her complicity in the string of abuses that he has endured. The dogs bare their teeth and snarl at the defenceless girl, while Dániel commandeers a flamethrower (!) to try to protect his daughter. But in the end, it is Lili’s soulful trumpet that soothes the savage beasts and reintroduces some symbolically vague harmony.
Mundruczó’s choice of Liszt’s piece, which he describes as “an emblem for Hungary,” as a vehicle for societal reconciliation only further goes to show the wrongheadedness of his allegorical construction. This is a composition written by a German composer who, caught up in his romantic admiration for Hungary’s culture and diversity, infamously overstated the piece’s roots in Gypsy folk songs and downplayed its actual heritage in Hungarian verbunkos, the recruitment songs that were played as Hussars danced and encouraged young men to enlist. The fact that Mundruczó’s revolutionary mob and its golden leader bow their heads in submission to this melody—one that obsequiously praises an imagined minority tradition while serving nationalistic-militaristic ends—is as an appropriately sour note to conclude a film that, despite its incredible canine cast and must-see climax, delivers considerably more bark than bite.