You have to wonder: Why didn’t Lassie just leave Timmy in that well? You hope that all the table scraps you’ve fed your dog over the years bought you some scrap of good will. But if we were solely judged on our treatment of animals, we’d likely be in that well for a very long time. This ideas sits (and stays) at the heart of White God, the revenge-movie/Lassie-turned-commando/social-commentary flick out of Hungary.
The film centers around Lili, an introverted teenager from a home of separated parents. Her only friend is Hagen, a mutt of mixed breed who accompanies her everywhere; on hikes, to her orchestra recitals, and to the very awkward weekends with her estranged father. Her father, of course, is not a fan of Hagen. After all, he does work in a slaughterhouse: our first interaction with him is as he (and by extension, we) stand witness to the methodical dismemberment of a cow. It isn’t long before he banishes Hagen to the streets, where things really start to get hairy. The film shifts focus to Hagen and his stray friends as they fend for themselves on the cobble stone streets of Budapest; evading dog-catchers, abused for our amusement, and mistreated by organizations supposedly designed to help them. Obviously, the pups don’t take kindly to this treatment. The result is a fantastical full-on dog rebellion that tracks down all those that did them wrong and exacts biting revenge.
White God is as ambitious as it is satisfying. For one, the film was shot without the use of visual effects. 250 dogs were trained for the shoot, and all were rescued from shelters for a helluva acting gig and then sent to adoptive homes in post-production. The “acting” of Hagen (who is actually two dogs) is superior to the “acting” of regular cast members on Scream: The TV Series (ooohhhh! Shots fired!). At times its hard to pin down exactly what kind of film White God is. It darts it eyes to every movement of a ragged tennis ball. Is it a teenage melodrama? Maybe, but then it whips its tail to comment on our hypocritical treatment of animals (the conditions of dog pounds is nothing compared to, say, our butchery and torture of cows, which White God is quick to point out). But suddenly, its a prison-break flick culminating in sweet, sweet vengeance! At face value, White God is an extremely satisfying alternate reality. On closer examination, you know, where you can really see the fleas, it is a veiled observation of racial and migrant issues in Europe.
Hagen is not a pure bred dog. Neighbors scoff at the presence of a lowly, mixed-breed mutt in the apartment building. They call animal control to make sure this mutt doesn’t get out of line. When animal control can’t fine the owners into compliance, they chase the mutts down with poles and muzzles and throw them into wretched cages. When the mutts take action to improve their conditions, the police bust out the riot gear and shotguns to put the mutts back in their place. If you can’t hear the metaphor howling at the moon, just check the title of the movie. Perhaps now more than ever is a good time to watch White God.
“Compassion for animals is intimately connected with goodness of character.” Compassion is practiced. If only we can learn to treat our own kind as well as we treat our canines.