Films starring live-action animals don’t need to be trite, sappy, or simplistic. For every Air Bud and Marley and Me, schmaltzy trash utilizing pets as cute bait and for unearned dramatic leverage, there’s a Au Hasard Balthazar or Babe: Pig in the City, thoughtful, imaginative films which consider animals as subjects worthy of respect and at least some measure of seriousness. White God would seem to occupy the latter camp, winning the Prize Un Certain Regard at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival—in addition to the slightly less prestigious Palme Dog Award for its animal cast. But Kornél Mundruczó’s fable of liberation and redemption is far less distinctive than its high-culture trappings might indicate, an amorphous allegory that’s part canine spin on Hitchcock’s The Birds, part art-house Benji, never moving past a basic conception of animals as adorable, attention-grabbing blank-slate symbols.
After her mother and stepfather head off for a three-month sojourn to Australia, teenaged Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is left with father Daniel (Sándor Zsótér), a humorless grouch responsible for approval-stamping cow carcasses at the local slaughterhouse. Spurred on by a nosy neighbor and an unexplained tax on “mongrel” mixed breeds, Daniel forces Lili to abandon her beloved dog, Hagen, dumping him unceremoniously on the side of the road. The emotional thrust of the film is then split off into two parallel halves, the human drama of Lili’s steady hardening by adolescent experience alternating with the tragedy of the gentle Hagen, who’s forced steadily into a state of feral ferocity, pushed through a gauntlet of abuse by a series of monstrous new masters.
The dog, of course, will have his day, and while White God affects long takes and a general air of artistically inclined realism, the Hungarian film is mostly concerned with building tension via a steady accumulation of flatly conceived misery. As Lili flirts with boys and experiments with alcohol, Hagen faces off against brutal dog-fighting managers and callous kill-shelter overlords, finally orchestrating the massive escape of the shelter’s dogs, who subsequently overrun the entire city. This is White God’s piece de resistance, an explosion of animal energy that allows the voicelessly oppressed to fight back against the society which has pushed them to the margins. Yet while the expansive, freeform choreography of these scenes is undoubtedly impressive, the potential for cathartic release is undercut by the fact that the outcome feels so predetermined, the obligatory feel-good capper on the cycle of abuse and deprivation that’s alternately established the film’s gritty bona fides. Mundruczó has little grasp on cumulative horror or action orchestration, and so the individual instances of mayhem function only as isolated moments of spectacle, more of the same empty showiness that too often accompanies the parading about of animals on screen.
These hints of insipidness are confirmed as Hagen and Lili reunite, via a fairy-tale ending that wipes away any lingering suggestion of edginess or ingenuity. Mundruczó has made the mistake of creating a film about dogs that neither takes any interest in the life of the animal as an actual subject nor considers its full weight as a metaphorical one. Unlike Balthazar, whose silent, noble suffering served as a means of considering grace and suffering in a world riven by inexplicable cruelty, White God is an automated, compassion-wrenching machine that draws all its energy from portraying the visceral horrors of abuse, its allegorical underpinnings tacked on almost as an afterthought. The depiction of an underworld of sneering villains, all poised to eventually get their comeuppance, assures that any examination of evil or injustice never goes beyond cartoonish stereotype, making for a film that’s closer in spirit to Beethoven than anything meriting serious artistic consideration.