Courtesy Magnolia

“White God” is a social-justice fable for our time

By Neal Schindler

The 2014 Hungarian film “White God” recently became available on Netflix. It tells the fable-like story of a 13-year-old girl who searches for her beloved dog after her father cruelly separates them. The child protagonist and plot notwithstanding, “White God” is not intended for young viewers. Tinged with political commentary and horror, the movie may be particularly difficult for animal lovers to watch. As someone who considers animals vitally important, I found “White God” both infuriating and galvanizing.

Some reviewers criticized what they saw as the director’s underdevelopment of the film’s political allegory. Yet some of the most effective fables impart universal themes. Some unequivocal truths certainly emerge in “White God.” At the same time, even the filmmakers couldn’t have realized how relevant the theme of injustice would turn out to be in relation to Hungary itself. Even as a simple animal-rights manifesto, this is a powerful and harrowing depiction of what some humans do to “lower” creatures out of desperation, greed, or outright malice.

In the film, Lili (nicely underplayed by Zsófia Psotta) must live with her cranky father, Dániel (Sándor Zsótér), while her mother attends a conference. When she moves in, Lili brings with her a sweet-natured, mixed-breed dog named Hagen (portrayed by twin canines Luke and Body). As one critic noted, “If someone wants to make a case that our four-legged actor friends deserve to be considered for Oscar consideration, right alongside Streep and McConaughey, they need only offer ‘White God’ as evidence.”

Once you’ve seen the film and have marveled at the subtlety and pathos of Luke and Body’s performances, that suggestion won’t seem like hyperbole. If Andy Serkis should win an Oscar for his motion-capture work in the “Planet of the Apes” movies, Luke and Body could reasonably share a statuette of their own.

The film does paint with broad strokes at times. Dániel hates dogs, so he dumps Hagen unceremoniously by the side of the road, over Lili’s ardent objections. Subsequently, Lili rebels in typical teenage ways and Hagen endures unsurprising forms of mistreatment. What struck me about “White God” was not the plot but the matter-of-fact, unsentimental treatment of characters and situations. In my experience, that’s a hallmark of European, and particularly Eastern European, cinema. The vérité style of “White God” suits its subject matter perfectly.

Then there’s that title: “White God” is presumably a reversal of “white dog.” What the film calls into question, I think, is the very idea that we humans are the center of God’s universe. It’s a notion to which most of us are understandably quite attached. How shocking it would be if God didn’t play favorites after all!

I sense undertones of class war and uprisings against police brutality in the film, but above all I see psychological and political karma at work. A population, whether human and canine, that experiences injustice at the hands of a malicious and ignorant oppressor cannot tolerate it indefinitely. A group may rise up nonviolently, in the style of Gandhi or MLK, or it may fight physically, like the Bielski partisans in World War II. Hagen’s persecutors, captors, and tormentors have their reasons for behaving as they do, but they all suffer or die by the sword — or the dog catcher’s lariat — in true Matthew 26:52 style.

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