White God, the extraordinary horror-fantasy by Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó, starts off like a PG-rated adventure worthy of Disney. Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is forced by her boorish father to abandon her beloved mutt Hagen in the streets of Budapest because he’s unwilling to pay the steep tax the government has levied on owners of mixed-breed dogs.
For the first half of the film, we follow the frightened Hagen as he embarks on heart-stopping adventures, such as dodging speeding cars as he crosses a highway or escaping dog catchers’ nets. While 13-year-old Lili frets and worries and posts “Missing” fliers around her neighborhood, Hagen wanders around the city, befriending other strays and learning how to find food and water.
And then Hagen runs into a bad, cruel man, and White God, which opens April 10 at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and Cinema Paradiso Hollywood, shakes off its adorable Babe: Pig in the City veneer and becomes something far darker, more potent and violent. Take the film’s R-rating seriously.
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“I grew up watching Disney movies, and I kind of used them as an example” Mundruczó, 40, said during a recent visit to New York to promote his film. “I wanted to start the movie as innocently as possible, because it was important for the audience to feel empathy for both characters [Lili and Hagen], so when the movie turns and the rules and pressures of society intrude on the story, your heart starts beating faster. The first half is like a fairy tale. The second half is much more realistic and horrific — an honest look at what life is like for a street dog in Eastern Europe.”
Mundruczó co-wrote the script (with Viktória Petrányi and Kata Wéber) as an allegory for class and racial strife in his native country. But White God, which won the Un Certain Regard Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and also screened at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival, speaks to any society dealing with the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots, and how ethnicity and birthrights continue to form barriers between people who otherwise share the same heritage and culture.
“This is the most Hungarian movie I’ve made,” said the director, whose previous films (including Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project and Delta) told smaller, more intimate stories. “I wanted to reflect my society and illustrate my fears regarding how much Eastern Europe has changed in the past few years. Most movies that come from that region tend to be melancholy, but those feelings are gone now. Capitalism has won over democracy. Yet at Cannes, everyone told me they could relate to the film as well, regardless of where they come from. It’s a paradox: My most personal movie became my most universal one.”
Beginning with a title card that quotes the 20th century Austro-Hungarian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (“Everything terrible is something that needs our love”), White God returns again and again to the theme of cruelty begets cruelty. After Hagen suffers heartbreaking abuse (in sequences that may hard for some dog lovers to stomach, although it’s easy to tell by their wagging tails that the animals were never in any real danger), he and his fellow unwanted mutts rise up and wreak unexpectedly gory, bloody payback on their oppressors. The metaphor may not be subtle, but White God is so skillfully made, with jaw-dropping shots of hundreds of real dogs running through the deserted streets of Budapest, that the heavy-handedness never gets in the way of the movie’s horrifying, compelling momentum.
Although it looks lavish, White God was actually a low-budget production, made for only $2.2 million (“We gave the $2 million to the dogs and used the rest to make the film,” the director jokes.) At a time when most Hollywood movies prefer to fake even car chases with computer-generated imagery, the realism of White God is startling, with visuals as astonishing as anything in Gravity or Interstellar.
“This movie is really an American dream, because everybody back home told me it was impossible to do it without CGI,” Mundruczó said. “Then, two miracles happened. We contacted an American animal trainer [Teresa Ann Miller] who said maybe we could do it. Then I met another trainer who had no filmmaking experience but knew how to get a large group of dogs to socialize and act together. Except for the last shot in the film, there are no special effects. That was the only way to convey what these animals are feeling — their emotions and spirits.”
More than 250 dogs were wrangled by 50 trainers on the set and taught to perform difficult stunts on cue. Since most of the pooches had been rescued from pounds, they were initially depressed but were eager to please their trainers and communicate with them, so they all hit their marks on cue without problems. In shots that show a stampede of canines chasing after humans, most of the animals are simply running after a few dogs that had been conditioned to be alpha-leaders of the pack.
“The trick was to give the dogs as much freedom as we could,” Mundruczó said. “The trainers used positive reinforcement — lots of ‘Good boy!’ and ‘Good girl!’ We had an unusual schedule of filming for one week, then taking the next week off to train and rehearse. If you treat them as animals, it’s much harder. But if you treat them like people, then it’s not a problem.”
A lot of film buffs have theorized that White God’s title is an homage to Samuel Fuller’s 1982 thriller White Dog, in which Kristy McNichol played a girl who unwittingly adopted a stray German shepherd that had been trained by white racists to kill black people on sight. The film was so controversial it was shelved and not released in the United States until a decade later (it is now available on DVD).
Fuller’s film, too, used the exploitation of an animal as an allegory for race relations of the era. More than 30 years later, the movie remains a bold and unsparing commentary on prejudice and learned behavior — themes White God shares.
But Mundruczó didn’t see Fuller’s film until he had wrapped his own movie.
“It turned out that the father of our trainer was Carl Miller, who had worked on Fuller’s film, so of course I had to see it. I was surprised and pleased there were so many similarities between the two movies, because Fuller was a great filmmaker. But my title was really inspired by the work of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning South African writer J.M. Coetzee. He wrote a lot about colonization, racism, territory and exile. In his novel Disgrace [which won the Booker Prize] he explored the way dogs perceive us as God when they look at us, and how they love us more than we love ourselves. That was really the inspiration for the title. And although the law in the movie that requires taxation of mixed-breeds is fictional, it is very close to reality. The Hungarian parliament tried to pass a law just like it three to four years ago. I was shocked anyone could even come up with that idea. This movie, in a way, is a response to that.”