So Quiet on the Canine Front
Can’t discuss this one without spoilers, so watch out.
WHITE GOD, from Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó is a very impressive dog’s dinner of a film, channeling various influences through some powerful scenes and into a peculiar, visionary but confused parable. An abandoned dog is trained for illegal fights, then escapes and leads its fellow canine oppressed in a revolution on the streets of Budapest.
The first major influence, name-checked in the title, is Sam Fuller’s allegorical fright film WHITE DOG. Taken literally, that’s a film which doesn’t make sense — we’re asked to accept the retraining of a racial attack dog as a metaphor for racism in general. If the dog can be trained not to attack black people, maybe there’s hope for humans. Of course, it doesn’t follow, in any literal, logical way — Fuller is dealing with metaphor, but doing it via his usual high-impact, tabloid all-caps cigar-chomping way, so that some viewers don’t impute the film with the intelligence to be allegorical. A mistake — it knows what it’s doing.
Despite coming with a dedication to Miklos Jancso, WHITE GOD doesn’t quite inspire the same confidence, partly because it also owes a vast, unacknowledged debt to RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. But while the Hollywood blockbuster has a miracle breakthrough in genetics as plot device, so that the simian revolution, no less an allegory than WHITE GOD’s, can also make sense in science fiction terms, the Hungarian quasi-remake goes from a plausible first half, in which Hagen the beloved mongrel pet undergoes a believable transition to brutalized killer with filed fangs, its second half, showing him suddenly become undisputed alpha male of a whole dog home and leading them to escape and practically take over the city, is quite unbelievable in rational terms, and unprepared-for except by an opening sequence which I think most viewers assume is a dream. When we see the city deserted save for this vast wolfpack, we think “Well, that’s an arresting image, but no way that’s actually going to happen in this film.” But then it DOES — and for no reason.
In other words, the early part of the story, which has echoes of AU HASARD, BALTHASAR and CALL OF THE WILD, is more effective because more believable. It’s quite emotional and features amazing dog acting and dog wrangling. The humans are all a bit one-note, though the tough, uningratiating performance of Hagen’s 14-year-old owner, Zsófia Psotta, is admirable. A title at the start states that everything terrible is a thing that needs love — but the filmmaker doesn’t seem to have applied that charity to his human characters, so many of whom are uncomplicated shits, whose bloody death at the jaws of revengeful mutts seem intended to invite our applause.
But all sections of the film are achieved with some visual skill, including the epic scenes of uncivil unrest. The large-scale dog action is jaw-dropping, and the dogs are always credible, apart from a few shots of them running rampant in the streets where they don’t seem interested enough in their potential human victims. They’re just jolly dogs, running about on a spree.
The film has one more swipe up its sleeve, achieved with some grace and skill. Zsófia plays her trumpet to Hagen early in the story to calm him, so when the dog army converges on her dad’s place of work at the end (for unexplainable reasons: as John Sayles once put it, these monsters all have some kind of mysterious radar that leads them to their equivalent of Tokyo), she soothes the horde with music, which hath charms to etc. Lots of shots of dogs emoting. Someone wonders whether to call the authorities. No, says dad. Give them a little longer.
Is he aware that he’s quoting the last lines of PATHS OF GLORY? Mundruczó is certainly aware that he’s quoting the last scene, almost shot for shot. Remaking a WWI movie with dogs is not a new idea, however. Take it away, DOGVILLE SHORTS ~