It’s man versus animal in Kornél Mundruczó’s allegorical ‘White God’

April 3, 2015, 1:03 a.m.

In the introductory scene of Kornél Mundruczó’s fantastical thriller, “White God,” a moving epigraph reminds viewers of the need for human compassion: “Everything terrible is something that needs our love.” This controversial statement — credited to influential poet Rainer Maria Rilke — motivates the entirety of Mundruczó’s latest directorial endeavor. Awarded the Prize Un Certain Regard at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and submitted as the Hungarian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards, “White God” explores the power of empathy and care through the lens of both human and canine relationships. In turn, “White God” becomes a disturbing fantasy, one that exquisitely captures the very real consequences of lacking a heart.

The film begins with a flash-forward: Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is biking across a desolate city when suddenly, a swarm of stray dogs begins to follow her. This occurrence feels rather eerie — much like the rest of the feature’s oft-surreal acts.

After departing for a three-month conference in Australia, Lili’s mother leaves her daughter in the care of Dániel (Sándor Zsótér), Lili’s estranged father. To his annoyance, Lili comes with baggage, her loyal and solicitous companion, Hagen (Bodie). This mixed-breed canine is not warmly received by the residents of Dániel’s building or by Daniel himself. Consequently, Hagen and Lili are ultimately separated. Money-thirsty men looking to start businesses out of animal fights take hold of Hagen, slowly transforming him into a violent and ferocious creature. By the time Lili discovers his whereabouts, the once-tender dog has become the leader of a pack of unwanted and vagrant animals. Hagen then sets out along with his troop to strike back at the callous and hard-headed humans, creating a wake of terror in the city.

In a skillful and impressive performance, Psotta highlights the significance of human affection through her association with Hagen. In fact, her displays of loneliness, sadness and despair carry the weight of a mature adult. Lili effortlessly reveals the common woes that come with exploring unknown and dangerous territories without backing or support. In the midst of her longing for Hagen, she often repudiates her father. Her retorts, however, do not carry a childishness privilege; instead, her sulking consistently appears warranted and appropriate. Asking for a cigarette in a moment of despair or, better yet, attending a grown-up party and passing out after several drinks, Lili accentuates her dependence on Hagen’s love. Her relationship with the dog is meaningful, not only because of the companionship it offers, but also because of the ideals it observes.

The role of Hagen — the film’s other protagonist — is consequential, largely due to its allegorical standing. The doggy-turned-monster puts into question the development of power relations, as well as the inevitable calamities that unfold when certain groups are subjugated and ill-treated. Whether Hagen can be held accountable for his actions or if the blame should fall to the series of people who were responsible for both him and his ill treatment, is left open to interpretation. Regardless, Hagen’s transformative process — from domestic animal to ravaging beast — is proof of the perils that transpire when endurance runs low.

“White God” essentially boils down to a juxtaposition of two tragic stories. As Lili and Hagen’s separation intensifies, so does their descent into damaging and harmful vice. Only together can they truly be stable and sound. In this regard, the Hungarian feature is somewhat similar to the 2000 Mexican drama, “Amores Perros,” another film which examines human brutality through relationships with animals. In “White God,” though, there is a stronger emphasis placed on the importance of love and compassion, and the relationship between dog and man. After all, we call them man’s best friend, but, would they necessarily call us the equivalent?

Contact Ena Alvarado at enaalva ‘at’

Ena Alvarado hails from the boisterous city of Caracas, Venezuela. She is a hopelessly undecided freshman who enjoys reading literature and watching films as much as understanding science and studying math. Someday, Ena aspires to learn how to whistle, improve her current juggling skills, and compose a full-length music album. In the meantime, she finds solace in books and nutella crepes. Writing about documentaries and foreign cinema never hurts either.

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