White God is a Hungarian film about men and dogs, and the chasm that exists between them, bridged, as ever, by a pre-adolescent girl. This movie is a lesson in missed opportunities.
I should mention at the outset that the blurb in the Cannes catalogue suggested a sort of “revolution against mankind” by mongrel dogs who have been exiled due to new legislation that favours pedigree dogs and heavily taxes their crossbreed cousins. I went into the cinema bracing for tragedy, but optimistic for some weighty political allegory, or at least some radical vegan anti-humanism.
What we got instead was a schitzoid mix of “the Incredible Journey“, “les Misèrables”, and the most recent remix of “the Planet of the Apes”. It was a tragic case of wasted resources and missed opportunities that opted for a Disney storyline with too much blood and swearing for kids, with an indecisive mission for the film’s hero, and a morally conservative punchline.
The missed opportunities I am referring to are threefold. The first was onscreen assets. This is going to get a little sappy for a moment, but please, bear with me. The film’s hero, Hagen, is a charismatic crossbreed (I’m guessing Labrador, Sharpei and Pitbull) who is both eminently watchable and exceptionally well trained. This is something you almost never see in movies. The dog was born an actor. But it doesn’t stop there: the film’s opening scene depicts Hagen’s owner, the laconic tween, Lili, riding a bicycle in slow mo and being chased by literally hundreds of dogs. It was a cinematic exception, echoed in dozens of similar surreally beautiful shots throughout the film: a river of dogs streaming through holes in fences, over barricades, through tunnels of moving cars. The animal wranglers on this project deserve a prize. They managed to organize a pack of over a hundred dogs of all shapes and sizes to move in unison for long tracking shots through city streets, to sit and stand and vary in speed on command, and to behave alternately menacingly or docilely with incredible control. Having had a considerable amount of experience with dogs, I respect that this is no mean feat and could have been used in the narrative to much greater effect.
The second missed opportunity was the disparity between the revolutionary blurb and the distinctly non-revolutionary content of the film. It promised a scenario that conscripted tricky themes of eugenics, class warfare, and the possibly congruity of human and canine intelligence. At the very least, I expected an allegorical commentary on the dangers of assuming “otherness,” Charlton Heston style, or the overbearance of the State on the private lives of its citizens. Sadly, this was not an ideological revolt but a shambolic coup, and did nothing in terms of a broader narrative to expand the dialogue between humans and canines, nor did it offer insight into the connective tissue between the two parallel societies (men and dogs) in the film. The dogs, however, had their day. A third of the film was a near comedic invasion of Budapest by an absolutely enormous pack of visibly friendly, healthy, well trained mongrel dogs.
The third missed opportunity, and here comes a spoiler, is that the film sold out its heroes. This is a brave move. After spending two hours bonding with a hero, a harder sell if that hero is not a human being (and a deeper bond if successful), the audience is invested in his fate. If you are going to sell out your heroes, it must be to a good cause – the message relayed in their failure must be greater than the value of their survival. If this truly had been a war film as touted, the Butch and Sundance ending for the massive pack of dogs who surrendered to the gentle touch of a human girlchild would have stood as a sacrifice for the greater good, or bridged a gap towards a common goal between species. Instead, the overarching lesson seemed to be ..the beguiling gift of music? Lili’s soothing trumpet playing was the ultimate antidote to the dogs’ brief and vengeful rein of terror, and their bloody doom, though postponed past the roll of the credits, was inevitable.
Between Lili’s father who was confusingly both cruel and loving and who ejected Hagen from the car at the side of highway during an argument with his daughter at the beginning of the film, and a staggeringly numerous team of inept dog catchers, and a ring of dogfighters with an outright bizarre training mandate (cue Rocky training montage featuring meat nailed to various surfaces, a home made treadmill and meals of cream and creatine powder), who lend an absurdly comic tone to a film, the ultimate success of the values of the peripheral human roles reveal some deep rooted problems with the authority that we as men exercise over dogs with impunity.