Early Hollywood star W.C. Fields is widely attributed with the show business adage: "Never work with animals or children" as they are likely to steal the show. Fields scarcely could have imagined White God, a category-defying fable by Hungarian filmmaker Kornel Mundruczo that features no less than 280 well-trained and highly emotive dogs to tell the story of a canine uprising against human oppressors in modern-day Budapest.
Winner of the Prize Un Certain Regard (which celebrates "original and different" movies) at last year's Cannes Film Festival, and Hungary's official entry to the 2015 Oscars, White God blends elements familiar from thrillers, revenge movies, horror (especially Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds), and pet-focused Hollywood fare like Lassie, and even has a coming-of-age story at its center. It's a strikingly original and engaging film, and one that uses the plight of the abused and neglected canines as a metaphor for racial prejudice and economic disparity in 21st-century Europe and beyond. Like any good fable, it has much to say about the world in which we live today.
White God begins in a slightly altered version of the real world and builds toward a kind of magical realism that arrives later in the film. It centers on 13-year-old Lili (Zsofia Psotta) as she bounces between her divorced parents with her beloved dog Hagen. Upon Lili's and Hagen's arrival at the apartment of Lili's father Daniel (Sandor Zsoter), they are informed by their new landlady that "Mutts have to be reported" to the city, registered and a tax paid for their presence. This is not the only time the film references the oppression of Jews and other ethnic minorities in pre-World War II Europe.
Hagen winds up on the street with dozens of abandoned mixed-breed dogs and begins a difficult odyssey through Budapest, moving from one needlessly abusive human to the next before the tide begins to turn. White God is graphically violent and sometimes hard to watch — in the spirit of the film, no animals were harmed in any way — but not without great purpose. Make no mistake: This is no cuddly pet movie for young children.
Catharsis arrives in the film's final third in a series of scenes unlike anything seen before on film. Working with 280 dogs — which is something no filmmaker previously attempted — was a gargantuan task for cast and crew, but the result is one visually arresting and unforgettable shot after another.
Even better are the subtle and accomplished performances Mundruczo and his corps of specialized trainers elicit from their canine stars, almost all of which were found in shelters. The production process began with several months of training for the dogs. Later, each week of shooting was followed by another week devoted to rehearsals and additional training (exclusively through positive reinforcement, preserving the dogs' real-life characters), which constitutes another filmmaking first.
In a hugely successful effort at maintaining emotional authenticity among the animals, only the film's final shot makes use of computer-generated images — everything that comes before is entirely real. There's no shortage of cautionary tales in the world, but few make their case as convincingly as White God.