I just returned from a trip to Eastern Europe where graffiti proclaiming "Refugees Welcome" was scrawled across walls in Dresden as a response to anti-immigrant demonstrations in Germany. Indeed, a growing wave of immigrant resentment is sweeping many European countries. So I was curious about "White God," a film by Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo. His allegorical film is an attempt to warn about the dangers of racism and prejudice, and he makes his point in a visceral way. Using dogs to represent the "masses," Mundruczo's film takes us with him as the world descends into chaos--a chaos for the ruling class that is, the people who have been abusing and dominating dogs systematically, and sending to the pound the mixed breeds that would otherwise be left to roam the streets fending for themselves unless their owners pay a "mixed breed" tax. The authorities roam as well, in groups, pulling up in their vans, armed with sticks and lassoes, rounding up the mixed breed dogs and sending them to certain death at the city "shelter." Only through the love of the movie's heroine Lili, and the music she plays, are the rampaging and angry dogs ultimately subdued and soothed, but not before they take their revenge on those who heartlessly abused them, leaving a bloody trail in their wake.
We are hooked from the film's effective and affecting opening sequence, where his charming young heroine Lili, played beautifully by newcomer Zsofia Psotta, rides alone on her bike through the eerily deserted streets of Budapest searching for her lost dog Hagen, only to be joined by Hagen and hundreds of dogs running through the streets like a well-choreographed army. A sense of dread overcomes you and it never really goes away until the film's final scene. Lili is a girl on the verge of adolescence whose long visit with her estranged father precipitates her growing up, as she loses her innocence along with her dog, and learns the hard lessons and compromises of life, love and loss.
The technical aspect of working with 250 dogs and no CGI, was no small feat for the director who willingly took on the challenge. In this day of computer generated mayhem, it's mind-boggling to imagine how this film was made. Credit must be given to all the actors, the director and the dog trainer Teresa Miller. Her work with the lead dogs, who play Hagen, Luke and Bodie, was extraordinary. Many of the dogs used in the film, like the two leads, were rescue dogs and many found homes among the cast and crew when filming was through. Although the director reassures us that the violence portrayed on the screen was safely simulated, it was at times very hard to watch. But for Mundruczo, there was a purpose: "art must hold a mirror up to the face of society."
Although at times I wasn't sure whether Mundruczo was simply urging us all to become vegetarian, with harrowing close-up images from slaughter houses and butcher shops, his broader story certainly resonates when seen in the context of current events in Europe and beyond. With the entrenchment of an immigrant underclass in many European cities, and issues of harmony between races ever-present worldwide, the film, while sometimes over the top, is hard to dismiss and gives us much to think about.