As a film that quite literally takes the side of the underdog, Kornel Mundruczó’s White God is instantly likeable on paper. In transition to screen, it’s more than a little let down by a contrived plot and weak story-telling.
It begins as the tale of young Lili (Zsófia Psotta) who, when her mother sets off on a trip with her new man, has to spend the summer with her strict father (Sándor Zsótér). There’s a catch however: she brings along her beloved pet dog, and her father is anything but fond of canines. Nor indeed is anyone else in his building apparently, as the presence of a dog is soon reported by his neighbours, putting him in trouble.
We’re seemingly in the familiar territory of a coming-of-age story, where one girl over, one summer, is caught between loyalty to her pet and the tense relations with her father (there’s even a half-hearted attempt at a side-plot in which Lili flirts with the idea of romance with a boy). But White God soon verges from that trajectory, as the dog is abandoned by the father and is then the centre of focus, as he fends his way alone meeting one rotten human after another. These dog-driven scenes are actually highlights (who knew dogs could act so well?), almost making us wish we stuck with them all the way rather than return to the limp human storyline.
While we’re listing positives, another highlight is the powerful and extremely cinematic opening, with its 28 Days Later-style spookily deserted city streets. They’re soon filled by an army of dogs, charging in dreamlike slow-motion to a soaring score, while Lili on her bike is either being chased by them or leading them like a modern-day pied piper. In fact this is a flashforward, as we’ll find out later. But already palpable is the sense that these dogs are, in Freudian terms, the return of the repressed, the things that society wants to brush under the carpet, and they are now rushing out in one torrential stream to get their own back.
Sadly everything else in the film is no match. The plot is paper-thin and simplistic. Eventually, Lili’s dog, having ended up at a pound, initiates a mass escape and this canine legion are rampaging the city, meting swift and bloody revenge on all the humans who’d wronged them. Mundruczó is going for allegorical potency here, a sort of amalgam between Sam Fuller’s dog-centric racism parable White Dog and a zombie horror flick. But his message loses all credibility in an extremely contrived plot where every single human character (other than Lili) is a one-dimensional villain, either mean-spirited, wanting to hurt the dog, wanting to exploit the dog, wanting to put it down, and so on… We soon get the picture: humans are bad, and dogs are poor victims, and in Mundruczó’s basic allegory they represent any oppressed group.
Credit where credit is due, Mundruczó’s intentions are at least in the right place despite all complexity being sacrificed by his simplistic parable, but genuinely heart-warming it was to find out that all the many dogs used in the film, all from shelters, went on to be adopted after the production. Not only did the dogs have their day in this film, they stole the show too.