Name the film. Socio-political allegory involving animals that turn on their once human caretakers/slave masters in a violent bloodbath that evokes the video nasties of the 1970s and 80s? 2011s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes I hear you say? No, this is White God.
White God is an odd film to describe the premise of. Raised eyebrows and scoffs of incredulity usually follow the synopsis, but there in lies White God’s charm. White God is about a young girl called Lili, who when staying with her absent father, is not allowed to keep her mixed breed dog Hagen. Her father is therefore given no option other than leave it on the side of the street, leaving the innocent Hagen to fend for himself on the tough Budapest streets.
White God is notable for winning the “Un Certain Regard” award at Cannes, which kind of sums up where the film is going. “Un Certain Regard” winners are said to be the films that are “original and different”, so you can tell a film that takes the premise of Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and substitutes the apes for dogs is going to be a hell of a ride.
To start, the practical effects are stunning. I can’t even comprehend how the film crew managed to keep 274 dogs (a world record for film) all under control, making them the standout of the film. Credit to the animal trainer, Arpad Halasz, for creating believable stampedes and fight scenes involving the dogs, and to the dogs themselves, who each get their name on the end credits. Praise should also be given to cinematographer Marcell Rev, for beautifully capturing Budapest’s skyline and the haunting city streets. Rev does however, have a penchant to Grengrass-esque handheld cam, which does become a bit of an annoyance when he is obscuring characters or the dogs.
The acting is a bit sloppy, with many characters feeling one-note and token. Zsofia Psotta as the main character Lili, is very wooden, but comes into her own at the end. The most notable characters are her father Daniel, played by Sandor Zsoter, who bucks the Hollywood stereotype absent father by being quite ruthless before displaying heartfelt emotion in the second half, and Luke and Body, the dogs that play Hagen. We are with Hagen for the majority of the film, and despite being an animal, we are able to gauge his every emotion without any words being said.
Be warned though, if you are not a fan of violence and gore, you will find it hard to get through White God. In the screening I was present at, there were a few walkouts, and even I, someone who is a fan of ultra-violence such as The Raid or Audition was finding it hard to watch a few of the scenes. In the middle of the film, Hagen is taken to become a dog fighter, and we are bare witness to his punishing fitness regime. Whips and flogs are used on our canine protagonist, his whimpers punctuating the soundtrack, making for some genuinely unnerving scenes. The actual dogfight as well, where two dogs at set at each other’s throats, is brutal and bloody, and hard to keep watching because of it. But it’s the later scenes, where the violence and scale is taken to the whole city, where the dogs leave massacres in their wake that is the truly gripping stuff. We see the aftermath at the very beginning of the film, where the city is eerily quiet and abandoned, similar to a zombie movie.
White God is a film that will fill you with feelings, despair, fear, elation and joy. It’s a film that also had me welling up at its poignant ending. I can’t remember the last time I nearly cried at a film (Okay, yes I can, it was last week when I first watched My Neighbour Totoro, but shut up I’m trying to make a point here) and White God’s final line of “Let them have a little more time” brings the film crashing to earth with the cruelty that will inevitably happen off screen. If it’s coming to screen near you, go as soon as you can.
Score: 9/10 As the tagline says, “The unwanted will have their day.”