If Stanley Kubrick had remade “Spartacus” with a cast of canines, you’d end up with “White God,” the weirdest fantasy you’re likely to encounter this year.
This Hungarian feature from director Kornél Mundruczó at first appears to be a boy-and-his-dog story — only this time the human half of the equation is a 13-year-old girl.
With her mother and stepdad off to a summer of study abroad, Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is stuck with her father Daniel (Sándor Zsótér), a slaughterhouse meat inspector who lives in a depressing bachelor pad. Daniel is unsympathetic when Lili shows up with her beloved mutt Hagen (played by two dogs, Luke and Bodie). His lease doesn’t allow for pets, and given that he spends his days probing the still-quivering corpses of cattle, he’s not exactly an animal person.
Before long, Hagen finds himself out on the streets separated from his young mistress and learning how to survive. Apparently Budapest has a major problem with feral dogs, for the vacant lots and riverbanks are crawling with them. “White God” wordlessly observes as Hagen joins the pack and learns how to outsmart the animal control crews tasked with rounding them up.
Things get really bad when our canine hero is captured and sold to a thug who brutally trains the pup to kill in the arena. Don’t be mislead by the “Lassie Come Home” premise — this film is filled with bad human behavior, from language to drugs to violence. It is most definitely not kids’ fare.
Hagen’s brutalization is contrasted with the downward spiral of his young owner. Lili takes to roaming the streets alone at all hours. Relations with Daniel are strained. She’s picked up by the cops after a night of drunken partying. Her attitude nearly gets her thrown out of the youth symphony where she plays trumpet better than students several years her senior.
It all comes to a head in the film’s final 30 minutes, when Hagen triggers a jailbreak from the city pound and a tsunami of snarling, snapping dogs — quite literally hundreds of them — race through the city streets, terrorizing and killing.
Even more disturbing, Hagen deliberately seeks to avenge himself on the individual humans who made his previous life miserable. He leads his minions to attack dog fight enthusiasts, a bad-tempered butcher, even the grumpy lady who lives upstairs from Daniel and complained to the landlord about Hagen’s presence. All this is done without — so far as I can tell — any CG work. These are real dogs doing what looks amazingly like real acting.
“White God” — the title seems random but may refer to the 1982 Samuel Fuller film “White Dog,” about the retraining of a dog conditioned to attack black people — works best when it concentrates on its animal cast members. While Psotta is a promising young actress, the depiction of most humans as torturing brutes (at best, we’re indifferent to the plight of our fellow creatures) verges on the heavy handed. It’s a parable, yeah, but still.
But the dogs. Well, let’s just say that against our own best interests, we find ourselves rooting for them to get back at their human tormentors.
Teresa Ann Miller trained the lead dogs, evoking performances of astonishing subtlety. Árpád Halász collected the “extras” from Budapest’s animal shelters and oversaw the impressive flash mob of more than 200 canines that provide the film’s most unforgettable moments.
Occasionally “White God” bites off more than it can chew. But in its more spectacular moments, it is unlike anything we’ve seen.