Try explaining to somebody what White God is about and raised eyebrows tend to be the default response. I know this because I’ve tried; but, frankly, it’s the somewhat absurd nature of the plot that drew me to it in the first place. Well, that, and the fact that this was Hungary’s entry for the Oscars. Reason enough to get me into an auditorium on a mild spring evening.
So here’s that somewhat absurd plot: when young teenager Lili (Zsofia Psotta) is forcibly separated from Hagen, her pet dog and best friend, the two end up on parallel journeys in search for one another. She defies her dad and pretty much the entire adult world in her search; and he ends up as the leader of a street-dog uprising, terrorising the streets of Budapest. Think of it as The Birds having a baby with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, only for that baby to get vomited on by Watership Down. Pleasant.
The idea of dogs launching an uprising is arguably pure fantasy and the story’s biggest obstacle. But the movie gets around it by rooting the whole thing in a very harsh reality. Once Hagen is separated from Lili, we see him move from one despicable owner to another, each one subjecting him to awful acts of cruelty. It really isn’t one for the faint-hearted – there are scenes of animal abuse and violence here which are genuinely distressing; but it works because, by the time he breaks free and begins the uprising, we’re aching to see him gain some revenge. And, oh yeah, he does.
On the other side, we have Lili (a superb Zsofia Psotta), the heartbroken young girl who desperately wants back the only good thing in her life. Like Hagen, she too flits from one bad experience to another, trying badly to grow up in a lonely world. She doesn’t have any other friends, her father (Sandor Zsoter, in another excellent performance) doesn’t try to understand her, and nobody else cares. But her resolve stays strong and, like Hagen, we’re right there with her to the end.
The film moves back and forth between the two characters, making it quite obvious that their journeys are very much the same. It’s character development all the way for those first two thirds, before suddenly morphing into a thriller-cum-horror. I’d say it gets a bit predictable at that point, but I’d also say that doing the predictable thing is sometimes the right thing. We know what’s going to happen in that final third, but it’s what we want and they deliver. And it all leads up to an ending that is thoroughly satisfying in that it never really ends. It just fades to black.
I’m pretty sure this is the first Hungarian film I’ve ever seen, and it’s a bloody good one to start on. You’re not going to see too many films this year that are so strongly anchored by a dog and a 13-year old. But, really, do go in knowing that you’re going to see some distressing scenes. It’s not easy viewing, but it’s powerful and bold and fearless. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.
Oh, and before you ask: no. I have virtually NO idea why it’s called White God.