Anyone who’s ever loved a dog wonders at some point whether that cherished relationship is just an illusion. Does my dog love me back, or does it just love dog food? Am I projecting my own feelings onto a beast that acts only on instinct? When my dog dies, am I crying for the dog or for myself? In a sense, pets protect us from our own feelings, becoming repositories for the sort of tenderness that, if directed at another person, could unleash serious and possibly unpleasant consequences. White God, a powerful Hungarian drama by Kornél Mundruczó, has been called a horror movie because it climaxes with a dog revolt that sends hundreds of pissed-off shelter dogs raging through city streets in search of revenge. But the real horror for any dog owner is the idea that Rover might not be his best friend after all; Rover might be an Other, far outside his understanding or control, just like the people he guards against in the outside world.
Like Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008), White God is a story about a girl and her dog that works on multiple levels: a child could follow it, but its themes are profound. Thirteen-year-old Lily (Zsófia Psotta) is handed off by her mother, who’s spending the next three months in Australia on business, to her father, Daniel (Sándor Zsótér), a former college professor now struggling to get by as a meat inspector. To Daniel’s dismay, Lily brings along her mixed-breed dog, Hagen, who immediately becomes a problem: Daniel’s landlord prohibits dogs, a hostile neighbor rats him out, and father and daughter clash over what will be done with Hagen. Eventually Daniel pulls their car over to the side of the road and ditches the dog, which wanders pitiably around the city, falling in with a pack of strays, and eventually winds up with a cruel gambler who conditions it to compete in illegal dogfights. Hagen is gradually transformed from a gentle house pet into a killer.
“Everything terrible is something that needs our love” reads the Rainer Maria Rilke epigram that opens the movie, yet White God effectively upends this sentiment, turning Hagen into something terrible that spurns human affection. The strong-willed Lily scours the streets looking for her dog, but the question of whether she’ll find Hagen soon gives way to whether the newly aggressive animal can ever return to its previous life. The movie’s surreal ending has drawn comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), another story of nature turning against mankind. Yet White God differs significantly in that the animals running wild are supposedly man’s best friend. Of course that’s a human sentiment, not a canine one, and the movie exposes it as an exercise in self-flattery, consistent with every other aspect of owning a pet. v