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White God - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
White God
Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: C+
Editing: B+

Okay, people. I'm a cat person! But, much as I would love to see a live-action movie in which cats launch an organized uprising against their human oppressors, I know that's never going to happen -- at least not without CGI, and director/co-writer Kornél Mundruczó was insistent on shooting White God without it. So: we get dogs. They're much easier to train.

Not that White God is at all unlikable, but it still gets easier to like the more details you learn about the production. This is an allegorical tale in which citizens of Hungary must pay a hefty fine for mix-breed dogs, and for that reason not a single purebred dog is used in the production. All 274 dogs used -- a world record for a film -- were mixed breed and adopted from animal shelters.

The bit about animal shelters is shared in an opening title card, but you have to do some further reading outside the film to find out a lot of the other details. Without them, you might wonder about the title, which on its face makes little sense. As it happens, this title is a play on the 1982 American film White Dog, in which a white German Shepherd is trained to attack black people.

It should be noted, however, that White God is a Hungarian film with English subtitles, and paced fairly slowly. The trailer to the film is quite a thrill, making it very clear that eventually dogs overrun the city. But the film, while opening with a memorable shot of a young, teenage girl (Zsófia Psotta) riding her bike through otherwise abandoned streets until she is overtaken by a huge pack of dogs, actually takes its time in getting the story up to that point.

This means there's a lot of time spent in which not a whole lot happens. At just over two hours, easily half an hour could have been shaved off the run time, making for a far more polished and compelling story. Instead, the allegorical element often runs the risk of getting completely lost in tedium.

Psotta, as Lili, the thirteen-year-old girl, is decent enough, more due to the ease of portraying a sullen kid than to overt talent. The acting by the supporting cast is uniformly adequate and nothing more, including Sándor Zsótér as Lili's resentful father. When Lili's mother drops her off to stay with her dad for three months, Dániel is met with suspicious neighbors who make false claims to the authorities about Lili's unreported mixed breed dog, Hagen, biting people. Dániel gets so fed up with the dog that, although he has just enough of a heart not to take him to a shelter where he knows he'll get killed, he abandons the dog to fend for himself in the middle of the city.

Hagen is played by twin dogs found in Arizona named Luke and Body, and they are arguably the best actors in the film. The story revolves around his character, and although White God is far darker than most "animal adventure" movies -- it steadily morphs into the realm of horror -- it's fun to watch him make his way in the city on his own, befriending other dogs with which to coordinate means of getting in and out of trouble.

That is, until a transient captures Hagen and sells him to a dog fighter, who is the catalyst for what will be by far the most difficult segment of the film for dog lovers to watch. Hagen is systematically drugged, beaten, trained and conditioned to become lethally aggressive, using visual and physical cues. He is transformed from a loving, gentle dog into one trained to kill. The worst stuff is conveyed off screen, so no animal abuse is overtly depicted (clearly part of Mundruczó's insistence on avoiding CGI), but it's still a bit disturbing.

That said, where the film goes from there is still surprisingly subtle, given the choices that could have been made. People die in this movie, but it isn't exactly Cujo. And really, the only human victims of dog-perpetrated violence are those who had been violent to the dogs, which should give pet lovers a pretty good jolt of satisfaction.

The best scenes are saved for last, in the several shots of literally hundreds of dogs running the streets of Budapest. The avoidance of CGI does pose a minor problem here, because we are supposed to take the entire pack of dogs as fed up and out for revenge -- they are even referred to as behaving not like animals, "but like a well-organized army." On screen, they are simply dogs trained to run down the street past cameras, so they don't actually look all that vicious, until there's a cut to a single dog growling. This is a minor complaint, I'll admit; it's still easy and fun to get swept up in these scenes. And how could anyone not love the fact that the dogs won the "Palm Dog Award" at Cannes?

In any case, White God is overlong and somewhat unfocused in concept, but it's truly unlike any other film and its climactic scenes, in spite of being imperfect, are still worth the wait.

Zsófia Psotta and the mixed breed dogs of Budapest are on a collision course with destiny in WHITE GOD.

Overall: B
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