A small, touching fable about a girl and her dog becomes an adrenaline-pumping thriller about animals against humans in Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó's exhilarating radicalization allegory "White God." By turns Dickensian, Marxist and dystopian, it's a movie as deliriously unclassifiable as it is expertly focused in its desire to provoke and entertain.
The setup is intimate and recognizable, heartbreakingly so. When 13-year-old child of divorce Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is handed off for a few months to her short-tempered slaughterhouse inspector father (Sandor Zsótér), she brings along her true bestie, a lovable reddish-brown mutt named Hagen. Dad won't pay a new, stiff, purebred-favored tax on mixed breed ownership, however, and in a fit of rage abandons Hagen to the streets, to the dismay of his daughter.
While Lili battles fruitless searches for her companion and simmering resentment toward authority, "White God" initiates a parallel track by giving us Hagen's journey, and a whopper it is: a brutal series of near-death escapes from a cleaver-wielding butcher tired of mongrels hanging outside his shop, the clutches of the animal shelter, and the sadistic world of underground dog-fighting.
These scenes bond us to Hagen's plight with unrelenting primacy. Filmed with the jagged energy of a Paul Greengrass nail-biter, they make clear that few films have ever so explicitly shown the daily threat to life for a creature left to fend for itself in a society that dismisses it as a beast designed for subjugation, abuse, and/or extermination. This part of the narrative is also expertly shot and edited to suggest more than it shows, in case your feelings about animals utilized for dramatization veer toward alarm. Mundruczó employed myriad trainers and adhered to strict animal treatment guidelines, but not to any overly molded and cute Disney-fied effect.
"White God" is movie trickery in the service of the naturalistic in depicting who dogs are, and the naturally manipulative about our empathy toward animals. A century after Lev Kuleshov's famous early-cinema experiments in how editing the same face with different shots triggers the illusion of discrete emotions, we might as well be pawns all over again. Rapt, riveted pawns.
And that artful rendering of dog "performance" is key, because when Mundruczó shifts gears to visualize a terrifying citywide canine takeover — targeted, vengeful and gory bites proving much worse than barks — it makes for some of the film's most breathtaking, scary and emotionally complex moments. "White God" had already opened with beautifully dreamlike shots of Lili bicycling down empty streets until scores of dogs careen around a corner, their bodies in full, magnificent motion. Are they following her? Or chasing her? By the time Mundruczó returns to that scene as something literal, it's a powerful, pure-cinema reminder that the iconography of freedom and uprising needn't only belong to humans.
MPAA rating: R, for violent content, including bloody images, and language
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Playing: At the NuArt, Los Angeles