White God is a good movie, but it’s unnerving to get glimpses of an even better movie in there. All the ingredients for a better story are there, but somehow it gets lost on the way, and then still finds some sort of ending all the same, like a dog on its long way home. This might explain why there was once so much talk about it, and then it never even made it to the cinemas, at least not near here. And please note: dogs will seriously be harmed in this movie. Humans, too.
The plot is simple, maybe too simple: there is Lili, who has to go and live with her step-dad Dániel while her mother is away. Lili takes her dog Hagen with her. Dániel hates dogs, and he acts like he doesn’t much care for Lili, either. He is a meat inspector, so kindness towards animals is not something that is innate in him. It is, however, innate in Lili, and step-dad and step-daughter cannot see eye to eye about how to treat Hagen. Dad, in a fit of rage, dumps Hagen on the roadside and drives off, a horrified Lili watching from the backseat, her best friend getting smaller and smaller through the rear car window, getting lost in an unknown city.
The story splits in two at this point, and since I prefer humans to dogs, White God surprised me because I liked Hagen’s half of the story better than Lili’s. I don’t know if Hungary’s cities have a stray dog problem, but the dog-catchers were after Hagen like they knew how dogs think and act. Hagen escapes several times until he is sold to a guy who tries to break his spirit and trains him for dogfights. Those scenes are not quite as savage as the ones in Amores Perros, but they are hard to take in.
While that sounds blood-curdling, Hagen’s side of the story reminded me of Dickens, maybe of David Copperfield’s odyssey, another stray in a strange place. A homeless guy sells Hagen for some money and a plate of hot food to a restaurant owner who resells dogs that are chained to their posts in an abandoned factory. Hagen’s canine best friend, a small white dog with brown patches, turns up twice just in time to save him. Hagen and other strays get to watch Tom & Jerry cartoons in a white-tiled room while some other strays are put down in the next room.
Hagen is played by a dog named Body, and I watched his performance with a kind of split opinion: on the one hand, Hagen does everything we expect a dog to do. He jumps in fright from the ships’ horns in the harbor, he growls at bad people, he sits alongside his best canine friend, he forages for food, he seems sad at finding a dead dog. It might just be one of the best performances of a dog in any movie, but I kept thinking that Hagen was trained to behave in a way that translates his movements and manners into something immediately recognizable by humans. I accept that this is a part of the dramatization of his story, but since White God shows us a chunk of real life in urban Hungary, there should be scenes in which Hagen is more, well, dog-like. Dogs do things that some humans just don’t understand. They sniff around here and there, bark for no apparent reason, trot from here to there seemingly at random. Hagen doesn’t do that; everything he does is part of the story. It is admirable to get such a performance out of a dog, but his acting also emphasizes the artifice of it.
That’s not to say that Lili’s part of the story is a disappointment. She is played by Zsófia Psotta with a kind of minimal approach that works just fine for the movie. Sometimes the camera just shows her face, and we know what is going on with her. Lili tries hard to find Hagen again, but she is also a young teenager, and sometimes her growing pains take precedence over finding her dog. She is interested in an older boy who is in the same orchestra as her, where she plays the trumpet, and tries to get his attention by holding his drugs while they are in a nightclub. There is a raid, and it’s Lili who spends the night in jail, not the boy. And then there are some weird non-sequiturs, like when the boy apologizes to Lili, and she says that it doesn’t matter. Say what? It matters. Lili has standards, and she is not so much enamoured of the guy that she would come out of that jail cell without any kind of anger or hurt. It’s a weird flaw in the screenplay that could have been avoided.
Another such moment is when Dániel picks up Lili from the police station. He breaks down crying, yammering about his hard life, and from then on, he treats Lili much kinder. That’s good for Lili, but why was Dániel such a cruel prick in the first half of the movie, and why does Lili’s night in jail soften him? The movie doesn’t say, and it doesn’t even hint. In a movie with only a handful of characters, where there is ample time to flesh them out and concentrate on them, there should be more backstory, especially for Dániel, and, to a lesser degree, for Lili, too.
And then of course there is that glorious scene where the dogs take over the city. It’s where the movie’s strenghts and weaknesses come together. Dogs take the city hostage, especially the orchestra and audience, since Hagen is the new leader of the pack. Lili knows what to do, and Dániel joins her. Hagen finds some of the old gentleness in him. Dogs and humans come to some kind of truce. That is more than I expected. And let me tell you that all the stray dogs in the movie have been trained and given to appropriate owners. Less to do for the municipal dogcatchers. That’s a very nice thought, because it goes beyond the movie itself.