Monday Movie: White God, by Scott Nye
Every Monday, we’ll highlight a piece of writing from our vaults. This review of White God originally ran as a theatrical review.
Have you ever found yourself musing, “You know, I liked that Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but I just wish it featured dogs instead…and took place in Budapest”? Well, then, I have good news for you, friend. Kornel Mundruczo’s White God is certainly a more serious, socially-conscious, and generally more accomplished film, but it’s…entertaining?
Now, granted, it’s not an easy watch. Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is a thirteen-year-old girl in the midst of a rough transition. She’s moving into her father’s one-bedroom apartment, but he doesn’t seem to particularly want her there, and he certainly doesn’t want her dog, Hagen, her only real friend and comfort. Beyond just seeming like a nuisance, there’s a fee associated with owning mutts like Hagen, and, well, Dad’s a bit of an asshole anyway. After a particularly heated exchange between he and Lili, it’s out to the streets with Hagen, who will endure hardship and abuse (an extended sequence finds Hagen “trained” to compete in dog fights) as he tries to navigate a loose sort of social order his fellow strays – and people looking to take advantage of them – have constructed.
Stray dogs really do run the streets of much of Eastern Europe, and they really do become quite crafty in surviving out there; one of the more famous accounts notes how dogs in Russia have figured out the city’s subway system. Yet there’s a degree and sophistication of communication between the pups in White God that – and it really must be stressed, Scott Nye is no animal expert – seems a bit invented or heightened, and welcome. Hagen in particular seems to have uncommon understanding of his actions and choices, and the bond he forms with another stray is quite nuanced and intimate. The eventual climax of the film, teased in its opening shots, involves hundreds of strays (lead by Hagen!) teaming up to not only generally wreak havoc on the city, but actually individually target Hagen’s aggressors. The scenes are alternately suspenseful – bloody paw prints leading up a stairwell! – and kind of hilarious. Right before the dogs take over the city, Lili and her school band were beginning their showcase concert, when suddenly the canines are up in the gallery, viewing the show and barking in appreciation like a pack of gremlins at the movies.
The tonal mishmash, which also includes a great deal of heart in the relationship between Lili and Hagen, generally works, as unusual as it is to see a modern film even attempt such a feat. Psotta is perhaps a bit untrained as an actress (this is her first and only credit), underplaying especially the scene in which she and Hagen are separated. Luckily, the dual dog performance of Hagen (played, in aggressive scenes, by Luke, and more passively by Body) more than makes up for it, the pups (Body in particular) conveying some surprisingly complex emotional beats. When Hagen proves a success at the dog fights, there’s a fairly long shot watching Hagen come to terms with what he has done, like the protagonist out of a Nicholas Ray film, that rests purely on the dog’s expression.
Yet amidst all this chaos – of emotions, of tones, of the way man punishes those he deems lesser – Mundruczo ends on a note of utter serenity. Perhaps there is a way forward, or merely some peace in the storm.