Taking his cue from a 1999 novella by South African writer J.M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals, Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo’s “White God” brings us a cautionary, surreal vision of a “once and future” Eastern European society where the superior few rule the others, and the others rise up in rebellion.
Coetzee explores the idea of animal rights in his book of essays. After reading Coetzee’s novella, Mundruczo, who also co-wrote the script for “White God,” wondered how stray dogs were treated in Budapest.
“I was shocked,” he told me in an interview. “I felt such shame that I am part of a system that while the cast-off dogs behind the fences were treated with such cruelty, while those in front of the fences, dogs with pedigrees, were treated well by their owners.”
He decided to explore using dogs to tell a fable about the mistreatment of stray and mixed-breed dogs by those in authority and what would happen if the canines organized around one dog and rebelled.
In “White God,” the mother of 13-year-old Lili (Zsofia Psotta) drops Lili and her dog, Hagen, off at the home of Lili’s father. But Lili’s father refuses to keep Hagen after an official shows up at the apartment, demanding that Hagen be registered and the fee that owners must pay to keep dogs. When Lili’s father lets Hagen go in the streets, Lili is determined to find him.
Hagen, who loves Lili, tries to find her, as well. But he must run from the dogcatcher and is forced into brutal underground dogfighting. Meanwhile, Lili tries to practice for a concert and live a normal life, but she cannot stop thinking of Hagen for long. When the dog is finally caught and put in the pound, he and the other dogs escape and run wild through the city streets in flat-out rebellion against the human masters who have imprisoned and mistreated them.
“White God” is not your average animal film, I’ll admit. We in the U.S. are so used to the feel-good animal story that most audiences would find this one is disturbing. It’s for grown-ups. It forces you to consider how society functions at this time and in the past and to consider what the future might be. For Mundruczo, the situation in “White God” is Hungary today. Using dogs to represent the human situation as he sees it was either a stroke of genius or, for some critics, the result of Mundruczo’s imagination run amok. This is as far from a Disney movie as any filmmaker could hope to get, but the audience cannot help but feel for Hagen and Lili.
It took almost a year to make the film, training the dogs one week and filming the next. The good news is that all the dogs in the film were adopted, and Mundruczo now supports a foundation that promotes care for animals. He admits he was not an animal rights person before the film, but after, he was determined to be a member of a society that treats animals well, hoping society would then treat humans well, too.
The scene with the dogfight is exceedingly brutal, though no animals were harmed. “White God,” which is in Hungarian with English subtitles, is social-political commentary, and it won special notice at Cannes in 2014, winning the prize Un Certain Regard.
The title “White God” is deliberate because white people have dominated civilization for so long, and a few white people dominate the many.
“Why is that?” Mundruczo wondered. “Is God white?”
[Sr. Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles.]