Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Kornél Mundruczó's amazing, troubling WHITE GOD: like no canine movie you'll have ever seen

Old Yeller was never like this. Kornél Mundruczó's Hungarian masterpiece, WHITE GOD, (Fehér isten) will leave you in some kind of state -- grace, shock, awe, or maybe just amazed at the proficiency of this filmmaker, the only other work of whose I've seen is the odd, and oddly memorable, Delta from 2008. I believe it is safe to say that there has never been a "dog movie" anything like this one -- which within (or, hell, without, too) its genre, also becomes a revenge thriller, an allegory about "the other," ode to "dumb" animals, sci-fi/fantasy epic and more. It jumps so many genres so thoroughly that it simply becomes sui generis.
And then some.

Directed and co-written (with Viktória Petrányi and Kata Wéber) by Mr. Mundruczó (shown at right), the film begins with a scene of marvel -- and one that does not look particularly CGI-ed. I can't claim to be any expert on special effects, but when they look as real, as genuine and "special" as they do here, attention must be paid.

The film then flashes backward to a previous time, in which its story carefully unfolds, before eventually catching up with itself. We've seen this done many times before. What we have not seen is all this taking place in what can best be called a "dog movie."

That dog -- a character called Hagen (he is actually played by two dogs - one of whom is shown at left, sporting a bowtie at Cannes, where he was evidently the toast of the festival) -- is a keeper. You'll fall in love with him instantly, but be warned: What happens to Hagen is not easy to bear. Dog lovers won't want to miss this movie, but they may have a damned difficult time getting through it.

Hagen is the beloved pet of a high school girl named Lili (talented and beautiful newcomer Zsófia Psotta), about to spend three months with her estranged father due to her mom's having to go abroad for work. Dad is not much of a caretaker, and he most definitely does not like dogs. Trouble ahead.

The movie will make you wonder if Hungary, the country from which it comes, is particularly anti-canine. Or if perhaps this goes with the territory of most of Eastern Europe. From what we see here, much of the populace couldn't care less about the creatures -- who are, evidently, not considered the Eastern European man's best friend -- unless he can make a killing off them, in the process perhaps killing the animal itself.

A large section of this film deals with what happens when Hagen comes into contact with a man who trains dog for fighting. This is by far the most difficult portion to watch, and yet it is also one of the film's strongest, calling into question the old nature/nurture theory once again.

Parenting is another major theme, as is coming-of-age, and to its credit, Mundruczó's movie doesn't shy away from the difficulties here, either. What make it work so well is how all these themes -- including that of the unwanted, the "other" -- are so thoroughly fused that you finally cannot (nor would want to) separate them.

Music and its uses are paramount, as well, bringing to mind again those "charms to soothe the savage breast." The finale -- fierce, rich, suspenseful, emotional -- is both monumental and mysterious. I suspect this is a scene you will never forget.

White God (even that title is loaded and mysterious), one of the finest films Magnolia Pictures has yet released, recently screened as part of the New Directors/New Films series, opens theatrically this Friday, March 27, across Canada and in New York City at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema. The Friday following it hits six more cities, including Los Angeles (at the Landmark NuArt) and then makes its way across the country in the weeks and months to follow. You can see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters, by clicking here.

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