What title would you give an apocalyptic Middle-European action-horror movie, one that’s full of sharply observed family drama, hyperbolic political metaphor and animal suffering? Writer-director Kornél Mundruczó settled on Fehér Isten—though I suspect these Hungarian words are just the translation of an English original, White God, that he devised in twisted tribute to Samuel Fuller’s White Dog. Like that long-suppressed parable about racism, Mundruczó’s movie is visceral in effect, educational in focus (it’s largely about the uses and abuses of training) and deeply invested in matters of concern to the canine community. That said, White God departs from White Dog by adopting the style of street-corner documentary for long patches, while in others (notably the blood-soaked finale) rising to a pitch of grandiose delirium.
At the beginning, though, you’re in the land of the merely uncanny. Something dreadful must have happened, because the Budapest shown in wide-screen overhead shots is eerily deserted in the golden light. No one is on the streets except a lone bicyclist—an oval-faced pubescent girl wearing a blue hoodie and backpack, combined incongruously with black dress pumps—who hurries over a bridge, past a single abandoned car and into the now-silent old city center. She looks over her shoulder as she pedals, perhaps warily, perhaps in expectation, as the establishing shots give way to the mounting rhythm of suspense editing. Sure enough, a dog suddenly rounds the corner behind her. It’s followed by three more dogs, a dozen, two dozen, until the street becomes a bounding, panting swarm of mutts of every description—floppy-eared, pointy-eared, shaggy, sleek, lap-size, pony-size—racing to overtake her.
The girl in this waking nightmare, Lili (Zsófia Psotta), is not just your random, opening-scene victim of genre-movie convention but one of White God’s two main characters. The other, who runs with the pack, is a very handsome young mix of Labrador, shar-pei and hound named Hagen (played by litter-mates Bodie and Luke). But this information comes only after the wordless foreshadowing of the prologue. When White God goes back to the beginning, you learn what dreadful thing happened. Lili and Hagen were separated—or, rather, society became so screwed up that authorities near and far, paternal and municipal, insisted it was right to tear Lili and Hagen apart.
Paternal authority takes the form of Lili’s father, Daniel (Sándor Zsótér), a bald, bearded, cadaverous man whose grim demeanor suits the job he endures as an inspector in a slaughterhouse. You are not spared the sight of industrial butchery (the first blood spilled in White Dog pools on the workplace floor), nor is the father spared the indignity of seeing his ex-wife take off gaily on a three-month tour of Australia with her new husband, who seems to have claimed not only the spouse Daniel loved but also the more dignified and lucrative career he once enjoyed. A man who is already the sum of all disappointments, Daniel must now accept the added trial of boarding a resentful and withdrawn Lili in his cramped apartment, and with her (here’s the intolerable part) her dog.
Everything about the dog makes Daniel more curt and censorious, and Lili reacts by becoming more sullen. Hagen whines in the night when separated from Lili. Hagen sets off a protest from a huffy neighbor, who doesn’t want any dogs in the building. Hagen becomes the object of a visit from city officials, who signal the political theme of White God by informing Daniel that only dogs of pure Hungarian breed may legally be kept. As a mutt, Hagen must be registered and then, to put it politely, removed. Strict measures are necessary. According to the huffy and also mendacious lady upstairs, the mixed-blood beast attacked her.