In an attempt to subconsciously celebrate the beginning of the Cannes film festival this year, I have decided to pamper myself with evenly-spaced screenings of little indie-treats that pack a mighty wallop. The winner of the Un Certain Regard prize of the festival last year, Kornel Mundruczo's Hungarian feature White God is the first film on my list to kick-start this personal revelry. I remember tracking the journey of this extraordinary film since the first time I had the good fortune of reading about it.
At the heart of the film is a tender love story, that of a gifted adolescent girl named Lili and her frisky, loyal companion, a mixed-breed mutt who goes by the name Hagen, who live in an unnamed Hungarian town. When Lili half-heartedly agrees to her mother's demands to spend the summer with her estranged father, she insists on bringing along Hagen. Her father, a cash-strapped former professor, takes exception to this, as one gets to know right from the start that he's not really a dog-person, or for that matter, an animal person.
But Lili's father is the least of her troubles. A gleefully loathsome landlady makes her grouse known and felt when she forewarns Lili to report her mongrel to the authorities and secure a paid permit for possession, as required by all mixed-breed owners. Lili's father, unwilling to pay for Hagen, abandons him on the highway, leaving the canine at the mercy of a cruel and conniving world. But then, Hagen decides to turn the tables on the humans, taking control of a whole battalion of half-bred mongrels, leading them into war against mankind.
It would be safe to say that White God is unlike any live-action film you will see in theatres this year. A slow-burn, almost surreal thriller that tightens its vice-like grip on audiences from its very first frames, the film offers a slew of heart-stopping moments that will find you reeling in its aftershock. The underlying subtext of the film offers a scathing commentary on the crisis faced by Europe in the wake of millions of immigrants crossing over onto its shores, and the subsequent detention and persecution of those hapless refugees by the powers that be.
While the conceit of employing animals to convey the pathos of the human condition has its roots in Orwell's Animal Farm , the premise has undergone several worthy iterations in a variety of media. In the graphic novel genre, Art Spiegelman's spectacular Maus, relived the horrors of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of his father. Disguising its protagonists, the Jews as mice, and the Nazis as cats did little to dampen the cumulative emotional impact of the story. On the cinematic plane, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu's critically acclaimed Mexican powerhouse of a feature, Amores Perros took the metaphor of Man Bites Dog to the next level.
The mysteriously titled White God , is a proud addition to that canon. It features, among all things, top notch acting from all quarters, especially the canine crew. The transformation of Hagen from a docile pet to a cold, calculating and ferocious weapon of mass destruction is a performance that can stand shoulder to shoulder alongside Bryan Cranston's turn as Walter White, the diminutive chemistry professor turned crystal meth kingpin in Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad .
As if they needed any further validation, all the dogs from this film were honoured with the title of the Palm Dog Prize last year, an annual alternative award handed out by the folks at Cannes for best canine performance in a live or animated film at the festival. A previous recipient of this award includes Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier from The Artist (2011). Do I need say more?