Saturday, October 11, 2014

LFF review: Hungary goes to the dogs in White God

How do you make a film about racism that is universal, poignant and thought provoking? The solution, which the Hungarian director Korn√©l Mundrucz√≥ came up with, is definitely not the obvious one: instead of using a minority to show us the rise of the oppressed, he gives us dogs. He claims that this allegory allows him to avoid many of the taboos surrounding the sensitive subject and cut straight to the core of the issue. This may sound implausible, but White God largely pulls it off and paints an unapologetic, brutal portrait of discrimination. In Cannes, the film was deservedly awarded the prestigious Palme Dog-award (yes, that's a real thing) for the brilliant canine performances by Luke and Body as Hagen, who would give Liam Neeson or Charles Bronson a run for their money.

In terms of genre, the film is an experiment. It never settles on a particular genre, going through several dramatic transformations. After an exhilarating opening sequence set in the deserted streets of Budapest, it begins as an edgy version of Disney's The Incredible Journey. Thirteen year-old Lili gets separated from her pet and best friend Hagen, after her father leaves him on the side of the road. There is emotional bonding between human and animal and, once they are separated, there is a comedic Bourne-style chase sequence in which Hagen and his new canine friends outwit a squad of dog-catchers. Then the story takes a turn for the dark: Hagen is caught by a dog fight trainer and prepared for battle. In the third act, the last shred of believability goes out of the window and the film turns into a genuinely shocking, violent revenge thriller with horror elements (dogsploitation?); including the questionable politics that often accompany this genre.

These aggressive tonal shifts come out of nowhere and are quite blunt, but they also mean that you never know what's coming next. The madness are somewhat anchored by Lili's story. Caught in an awkward stage between childhood and adulthood, she tries to find her place in the world while desperately trying to reconnect with Hagen. Her distant father and her absent mother are of no help. She is the beacon of hope in the conflict between humans and dogs in this extremely pessimistic portrayal of society. Everybody else, whether they have two or four legs, is horrible.

If you can stomach the tonal shifts (some work better than others), there is a lot of fun to be had with this original, positively bonkers movie. White God has been selected as Hungary's entry for next year's Oscar race. It will be interesting to see whether it gets the nod.

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