Movie Review: White God

Movie White God
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PLOT: Troubled teen Lili (Zsofia Psotta) shares an unbreakable bond with her dog Hagen. But when Lili's father kicks the mangy mutt to the curb, an arduous journey of perseverance through the Hungarian streets leads to an unpredictably heartening reunion.

REVIEW: Five years after leaving the festival circuit abuzz with his previous feature, 2010's TENDER SON: THE FRANKENSTEIN PROJECT, Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó is back with the unforeseeably divine WHITE GOD - a movie I had nary an inkling about before having the pleasure of seeing it. Word is the film was originally titled WHITE DOG, which, as you'll see, makes far more sense, but had the title changed out of respect for the great Samuel Fuller's movie of the same name. No matter, whatever you choose to call it, there's no denying the raw emotional power that this story - both a gritty survival tale and one of a doggedly determined search and rescue effort - is bound to have on international audiences alike. Perhaps swerving a tad out of AITH's lane, I truly urge you all to take a flier on this one, as WHITE GOD is an oddly, unpredictably omnipotent marvel!

Lili is a typically angst-ridden, attitudinal young teenage trumpeter whose best friend happens to be her mixed-bred dog Hagen. The two are inseparable. A charming early scene depicting such happens when, in order to temper Hagen's weepy separation anxiety when in the other room, away from Lili, the soulful girl comes in and plays a haunting refrain on her horn that settles the dog down at once. It's clear they depend on each other. That is, until Lili's insensitive father Daniel (Sandor Zsoter) bends to the whims of his landlord, who strictly forbids animals in his apartment complex. Refusing to leave Hagen's fate up to a cruel animal shelter, Lili begs and pleads to find a good home for her bestie, but Daniel ultimately boots the poor mutt to into the harsh Hungarian streets. Lili is devastated. Crestfallen. Fuming at her father. Determined to get her motherf*cking dog back!

Meanwhile, Hagen is left with his only wits to scuffle for survival. He traverses the unforgiving Hungarian back-alleys and scenic cityscapes, encountering a slew of shady characters, until he is eventually befriended by another stray (female) dog. His new pal steers him toward food and leads him to a rural reservoir which serves as a refugee camp of sorts of an entire population of homeless half-breeds. But when a sinister band of animal control comes a hunting with giant poles and collar-hooks, Hagen makes a daring escape that unfortunately lands him in the hands of a heinously abusive dog fighter. Real shit! Soon Hagen is forced into training harder than Balboa in ROCKY IV - chained to a treadmill, tug-of-warring for a piece of raw meat, his teeth power-sanded into fangs, etc. This is where the movie takes a most unflinchingly dark turn, with Hagen becoming a cold-blooded killer out for vengeance. Yet because of the ever-involved cross-cutting between Hagen and Lili's dogged attempt to find him, we still wholeheartedly cling to the certainty of a maudlin girl-finds-dog reunion. Which by the way, because it's so well executed, would be perfectly fine.

But that's not what happens. In fact, something far more unpredictable and profoundly satisfying occurs. I'll leave it up to you to discover exactly what that is, but suffice it to say, whether you dig the resolution or not, it's bound to make a lasting impression. And frankly, so is the entire film. It's a rough $2.5 million Hungarian indie with an indomitable spirit from start to finish, and more, a cool meditation on the innate soulfulness of all living animals, be they human or canine. The dual storylines are not only beautifully interwoven, building momentum toward an inevitable intersection...they feel real and genuinely earned on their own as well. Even at all of 2 hours, the dual-strands never feel plodding or chocked with weak filler meant to quickly get us to the awe-inspiring conclusion. Instead, we get a fascinating 2-part character study of yes, a dog doing all it can to survive, but also of a young girl's impassioned determination in an ever-cruel world. Lili's complex relationship with her father, her music-class mischief, her romantic advances...all of these things work nicely within the larger context of her mission to find Hagen. And a lot of that has to do with the performances.

Really, who the hell would've thought a dog would give the best performance of any movie I've reviewed so far this year. Sheesh. But it's true, between the two canines who portrayed Hagen (Luke and Body) and the absolutely convincing turn from Psotta as Lili, I found myself charmed by and fully invested in the movie. And even more impressive then what must have been a painstaking training regiment - the orchestration and coordination of shaping a natural performance from an animal (many animals, in fact) - is how every one of the 274 dogs used in the film (a record by the way) were mix-breeds adopted from actual animal shelters. Even Luke and Body, the two dogs that played Hagen, were found in an Arizona caravan park right before their owner was about to take them to a shelter. Astounding!

In the simplest terms, WHITE GOD is most certainly worth your time. It's a lofty but accessible piece of high-and-low art entertainment, anchored by a really compelling story of survival, determination and companionship. The performances are superb all around, which, in a movie like this that at times flirts with cheesy schmaltz, really saves the day and keeps the story believable. Moreover, the defied expectation of the ending, the deft direction of dual-narratives that eventually converge in a completely unpredictable way, is perhaps the greatest strength of the movie as a whole. Real shite, to my all black-hearted horror purists out there, I implore you to strip the cynicism for one day and give this one a look, as WHITE GOD is truly a heartwarming heaven-send. Don't be afraid!

Extra Tidbit: WHITE GOD hits limited theaters Friday, March 27th.
Source: AITH



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