SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Saturday, 11 October 2014

'WHITE GOD' (2014) // BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL // "One of the most liberating films about what it means to be an outsider since James Dean took to the screen . ."


It's rare you find a packed auditorium (for this year's BFI London Film Festival screening of the Hungarian dog shocker 'White God') as quiet and unrestless as it is today (lunchtime screening - 12.45pm, where the risk of thoughts of lunch on the way out add extra threat to any UK premiere of any film that turns out dull). 

Aside from some loud female guffaws in the corner of the room (perhaps nervous, starting off as a titter, soon developing into full honking mode - lone laughter in a crowd full of enthralled observers) - everyone was stapled to their seats in astonishment. Few films affect the senses so relentlessly: think Pulp Fiction or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me - even the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When the end credits come up on screen, very few members of the audience leave before the very final drop of soundtrack (and fade to background birdsong - gentle; almost threatening). The film gets a startled round of applause and I overheard one audience member, heading slowly out the auditorium door, whisper to her companion: "I feel very unsettled now". I wanted to call across to her - so do I

Directed by Hugary's Kornél Mundruczó, who previously gave the world all manner of equally unsettling things, from Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project (2010) to Pleasant Days (2002) as well as acting in his own projects - the action here takes place around all the lonely streets, dark corners, riverside walks, apartment blocks, meat-processing plants, dog pounds, wasteland, backstreet dens and opulent concert halls (ripe for some clear anti-bourgeoisie messaging) of Budapest.
A young teenage girl - Lili (played by Zsófia Psotta) goes to stay with her father while her mother heads off to work in Australia with a younger, more dashing new man at her side (her ex-husband's snubbed expression of disbelief and regret as he watches them leave establishing poignant parameters from the start).

Lili's dad (Sándor Zsótér - excellent as a resigned, dulled, but eventually enlightened father) works as a food inspector at the local meat processing plant and abattoir (we gather he used to be an academic professor of some kind, his status taking a downturn somewhere along the line) where he approves meat that may not be suitable for human consumption as having passed the 'split open heart' test - he uses this quality stamp as freely as a bag of prime steak to cook for his daughter gets handed to him (under the counter, with no questions asked - as a thank you for his 'work'). A stamp of approval from an easily corruptible government employee - but the inspection we witness leaving an actual stain of blood on his white shirt that symbolically gets worse and spreads, the more he tries to wipe it away.

Lili, his daughter, comes not only with a suitcase full of teenage rebellion but with a mixed breed dog at her heels as well - called Hagen. Dad doesn't approve. Neither does the upstairs neighbour in the block of flats where Lili's father lives and who reports them to the local heavy-handed dog catchers (of which there is almost a small army in number). Stray mixed breed dogs are now subject to a high tax that few can afford and Lili's dad doesn't want to pay what his ex-wife should already have paid. When the cruel old woman of a neighbour reports Hagen as having bitten her hand, it's not long before dog and girl get separated and Hagen (and Lili too - often, in the days ahead) takes to wander the streets alone.
Hagen's adventures from this point on weave through: friendships with other mutts (one cutie Jack Russell Terrier-type in particular), brutal experiences with local gangs who train Hagen to fight and kill other dogs in organised underground fights, dog wardens with their steel-wired looping sticks, a liberal-with-the-euthanasia dog shelter and its crazy-eyed warden and police marksmen with a message to 'shoot and kill - anything with a tail'.

Lili's story isn't all that different to Hagen's from the moment they separate - a similar, if less brutal coming of age. She is hounded by the conductor of the local orchestra she plays trumpet with and by her dad too, before flirting with clubs, boys and drugs. The ending of the movie - signposted from the start - sees an uprising of dogs take to the streets and claim their freedom. Lili - and her father - get a similar kind of freedom too, when they find out how much they need each other. The only question is - in a final confrontation between girl and canine companion: will blood flow once more or will there be some kind of new understanding reached between the humans and their tendency for cruelty and the revenge-seeking stray dogs that now roam the streets? The answer results in a final scene of unexpected quiet, breathtaking, wonderfully resolved calm.


The character of Lili, played by first time actress Zsófia Psotta, is strikingly sulky and one of the greatest portrayals of a cinematic outsider I've ever seen. Psotta infuses her character with quiet affection, burning embers of rebellion and unforced antipathy. When Lili suddenly has to grow up and the police get involved in what was once a quieter stand-off between father and daughter but has suddenly turned more serious - there's a touching understanding between the two that feels natural and correct.

The catalyst for this new found respect is an incident at a local nightclub (one that pulsates the head with blisteringly loud music and flickering neon; like a meditation on adolescence as Lili's face and dead-eyed stare change under strobe effects into whatever we wish to imagine: beauty, beast or some kind of leader - she probably doesn't even know herself how this transformation will turn out). Psotta is a young star to watch out for and has that magic ability that few actors have - to make a film 'theirs' (well, along with a certain canine co-star!).

Of course, this is a film as much about the dogs as it is about the clearly far stupider humans. The canine cast come mainly from local dog shelters and all the animal violence (which is brief but upsetting) comes with a strong disclaimer at the end credits that it was simulated and no animals were harmed. In fact - all the strays were rehomed after filming was over and every dog that featured in the movie gets their name in the end credits. Hagen, as the lead dog - stands proud and tall, and can act aggressive or passive, convincingly, upon command. Truly a star among strays.

A film that starts off with a fairy tale/ family movie feel and a fun scene with Lili being chased by hundreds of dogs (close to 300 were used in the movie - a record) changes the gameplan with some upsetting, real scenes in an abattoir and a (fairly restrained - but disturbing) theme of animal violence/ mistreatment to go with it. It's not rammed down your throat, any of this - but there seems to be a clear message from the director (who also co-wrote the screenplay) that no processed meat (or any meat in fact) is good and that seeing a steak prepared from dead animal to prime cut on a supermarket shelf is something we have omitted from the shopping process.

Even the starving stray dogs refuse to eat the steak from the local abattoir and this raises suspicion that some kind of disease is affecting the local dog population and sending them into a controlled frenzy (and possibly the humans too) - is it the meat that can be traced back to the corrupt processing plant that Lili's dad works for? Or is some dodgy pet food affecting behaviour - maybe even the nasty looking water puddles the dogs drink from on the landfill sites that the camera often lingers on so teasingly? This plot diversion adds an increasingly obvious sci-fi edge to a film that has already been compared to Hitchcock's The Birds or Planet of the Apes.

There is a horror movie turn towards the end of the film where we head into Cujo-territory; where the dogs get revenge on those who have (throughout the rest of the movie) tormented them - revenge especially on targeted individuals, with precision, rather than random attacks. This leads to unforgettable scenes such as the warden of the local dog pound being threatened by a defiant Hagen as she guards the main gates - only for hundreds of Hagen's escaped pals to join him and leap their way over the woman's corpse to freedom. Or the terrific scenes of a woman being stalked through her apartment by an unseen opponent - a stationary hairy dog leg under a table being the only visual clue to her padding attacker!
This is a film high on its satire of a stagnant society - one that's full of abuse and fear and snobbery on a high level. But, perhaps even more affecting than the thematic indulgences, White God becomes one of the most different, unsettling and liberating films about what it means to be an outsider since James Dean took to the screen and burnt it alive. The only difference being that the outsiders (of which there are many) we get to know best in White God are one girl and her dog. And maybe the girl's father too, who is - unexpectedly - as much an outsider (he later admits, in a tearful, powerful scene rich with grief and regret) as she is.

Despite the film's occasional deliberate ugliness, it leaves a feeling of being a work of perfect, joyous cinema. The beauty is overwhelming at times - the stray dogs in a sunset-lit wasteland roam across banks of litter and drink from puddles of dirty water, yet the composition is delicate and desirable.

The camera lens roams free from the start and we remember most, perhaps, a close-up of Lily's best patent leather well-heeled shoes and neat white socks (that she wears to a climatic orchestral event later in the movie that she ends up escaping from) as she pedals her bike through the deserted streets of Budapest - the howl of chasing dogs getting ever closer; the sound of the pedals spinning both relentless and unnerving. An escape by Hagen from dog catchers through the streets of Hungary is also unforgettable - accompanied by pulsing soundtrack as good as any Bond movie and the scenes and stunts just as exciting.
Perhaps White God's greatest triumph comes when the dogs attack the local concert hall and take to the balcony or pace outside the glass doors - a sequence worthy of De Palma, Argento or Hitchcock. Some of these dogs peer over the edge of the theatre boxes as if to watch the show and it's the film's best trick that even when the dogs are seemingly the threat, they make us smile, almost cry - or want to run with them. They are never 'the enemy'.

A moment of irony (considering how many dogs were trained for this movie) when Lili watches an owner force a dog to perform endless tricks, and her comment to Hagen that she would never make him do that, makes you realise that this film is entirely aware of its own identity - the stray canine actors being rehomed after filming stops also earning White God a sense of real-life redemption and a true happy ending beyond the two hour runtime, that no family film with a dog in, from the likes of Disney or anywhere, could perhaps ever hope to achieve.

A quick mention of the film's title of 'White God' - it means little and may not grab a wider audience as a result (so don't be put off). There is a legend whereby so-called 'white gods' visited ancient cultures to lead them, but to see Lili as representative of such, and of the wild dogs, would be to dispel the film's clear anti-racist/ anti-authority vibe. The film's title actually establishes a connection to the film White Dog (1982) from director Samuel Fuller that told the story (based on a real life incident) of a dog being found to have been trained to attack anyone who is black (that film, despite film-makers pushing an anti-racism message, was still shelved for decades for fears it could be adopted as the opposite). In White God the target for prejudice or snobbery is less selective and runs deep: it's everywhere.

The BFI London Film Festival screening of White God was an absolute triumph - this is a movie that splinters themes of love and friendship with ugliness and hatred or can just as easily shock with violence or melt with tenderness. Most of all, it's a film about the friendship that exists between girl and dog. This is not a movie that expects or allows any fake sentimentality. Human and canine lives have never been better realised or explored on screen together and Hagen could be the best canine actor since the original Lassie pined by her master's grave.

There's a rawness to all the tenderness on display and a total stillness at the film's climax; a final image not unlike the striking still life that Hitchcock provided his audience with at the end of The Birds. Familiarity throughout, but on so many levels that no single comparison can be made. In cinematic terms - everything works. I guarantee you will never have seen anything like this on a screen before - a true Hungarian 'hound of love'.

words: mark gordon palmer

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for such a thoughtful, detailed, brilliant review! This weekend I've been going over the LFF films I saw and realized that in my mind White God was on its own.. you can't compare it with anything else. I absolutely loved it and was completely on Hagen and the dogs' side - you're right, you can never regard them as "the enemy". It's a terrific piece of film-making too. I hope it gets a release in the UK.