We tend to like our animals cute. Suitable for mass forwarding, doing adorably human sorts of things. It’s a lie, of course. Disney herded lemmings off a cliff for “White Wilderness” in 1958, and that jpeg of the rodeo-riding frog your grandmother sent you only depicts an amphibian undergoing extreme stress. If you knew what that “Hang in there!” cat was actually thinking, you’d be ashamed for our species.
“White God,” an imperfect yet remarkable Hungarian drama opening today, plays fast and loose with these mixed messages and emotions. Directed and co-written by Kornél Mundruczó, it’s the story of a young woman and her prized pooch, yet it’s hardly a traditional heartwarmer. Not a girl loses dog/girl finds dog kind of thing. More like: girl loses dog-dog experiences the worst of humanity-dog rallies his entire species to wreak vengeance on the “white gods” that use and abuse them. Think “The Incredible Journey” crossed with “The Birds” crossed with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Or maybe just imagine “Cujo” as told from the dog’s point of view. Don’t take grandma.
The film opens with a stunner of an image — the girl, 13-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta), cycling at top speed through the empty streets of Budapest while hundreds of dogs nip at her heels. Then we backtrack a few months, when Lili and her big, beloved mutt, Hagen, are dropped off at the home of her divorced father (Sándor Zsótér), a humorless former academic working as a meat inspector. There’s a government tax on mixed breeds and the father can’t or won’t pay it, so he dumps Hagen by the side of the road and drives away.
The martyrdom is only beginning. “White God” proceeds to chronicle the harsh comings of age of both adolescent girl and unwanted mutt in a greedy, uncaring human society. Psotta, acting in her first film, gives a muted but touching performance as Lili hardens over time. Losing her dog is just the fall from childhood’s Eden, while mouthing off to her bully of an orchestra teacher (László Gáiffi) or stepping gingerly into drugs and sex with an older crew of kids is what one does after the fall.
For a variety of reasons — some excusable, others less so — Hagen’s trail of tears is harder to watch. Every human who takes the dog in has selfish reasons for doing so, from an elderly beggar (Szabolcs Thuróczy) to the blandly vicious middle-age man who trains Hagen for illegal dog fights, whipping the animal into a state of perpetual paranoid aggression. You breathe a sigh of relief whenever the animal is out on the street with his fellow strays, living below the radar in makeshift packs and dodging the municipal dog-catchers with their wire nooses.
Right about now is where I should mention that the hundreds of dogs used in “White God” were rescued from Hungarian shelters, coached by a team overseen by American trainer Teresa Miller, and given homes when the production was finished. All violence was simulated; the dog-fights are a matter of camera angles, editing, and friendly beasts playing extra rough. Relax, already. And then maybe wonder why we tend to be more disturbed about bad things happening onscreen to animals than to people.
The other thing to note about “White God” — the title may be a tribute to Sam Fuller’s 1982 “White Dog,” an even more misunderstood parable about a girl and her pup — is that the performance of the movie’s four-footed hero is especially mesmerizing when you learn that it’s two dogs, siblings named Luke and Bodie, doing the acting. Mundruczó keeps his camera at canine level so that we see and interpret the world as Hagen does, and while it’s in our very nature to interpret his emotions in human terms — fear, hope, companionship, anger — the movie does its best to erase the distance between animal and onlooker. Anthropomorphism, implies “White God,” is what got us into this mess.
The film also works as a conscious metaphor about any group marginalized and ill-used by a mainstream, and “White God” has been variously interpreted as an allegory about Hungary in the European Union and Muslim guest workers in Hungary. The parallel is so broad as to be nearly useless beyond serving as a doggie version of the Golden Rule: Do unto mutts as you would have them do unto you. Or they will.
More problematically, “White God” shifts genres so often — from caustic social realism to horror film to family melodrama to Hitchcockian apocalypse — that it threatens to lose its grip toward the end of an overlong two-hour running time. What saves the movie are those sequences of massed animals running riot through Budapest, overwhelming squadrons of police sharpshooters, and taking over a student performance of Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.” Hardly subtle, yet the scene yields one shot — of dogs glaring down from the box seats of a fancy concert hall — that’s nearly worthy of Buñuel.
“White God” gives every dog its day and makes you fear for the day after.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.