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'White God' review: Stray dogs against mankind

Zsófia Psotta in “White God.

Zsófia Psotta in “White God." Credit: Magnolia Pictures

The strident title of "White God" suggests a deeper meaning beneath its horror-movie premise. On the surface, Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo has delivered a version of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds," only with stray dogs running rampant against mankind. What's more, the film's antihero, a mutt named Hagen, isn't white at all, but a warm rust-brown with black shadings. So what's with the colonialist-Christian echoes in this movie's title?

The answer may lie in the repeated use of racially charged words like "mutt" and "mongrel" to describe Hagen. He's the property of Lili (Zsófia Psotta), a 13-year-old bouncing between divorced parents. Coming to live with her father, Daniel (Sandor Zsótér), Lili finds that Hagen isn't wanted. One day, Daniel takes Hagen to a remote location and leaves him there. Lili searches for him desperately, but even she is distracted by the concerns of her age: school, parties, boys.

What follows is a survival story, and the first half of "White God" is the most compelling. Following Hagen (played by Luke and Body) as he navigates the streets, evades dog catchers and bonds with other strays, Mundruczo achieves a tremendous amount of emotion and pathos, forcing us to see the world as this abandoned animal does. The film's most riveting scene comes when Hagen, forced to kill another dog in an underground fighting ring, hangs his head in what looks like self-loathing. At its best, "White God" recalls Robert Bresson's art-house masterpiece "Balthazar" (whose heartbreaking star was a donkey) and even Joe Camp's "Benji" (a less acclaimed but cleverly made film).

Mundruczo's main achievement -- wrangling scores of real dogs, humanely and without resorting to any CGI -- is astounding. Using smart camerawork and editing, he creates a few scenes of real terror (and humor) as Hagen makes good on even the smallest grudge. Still, it's never clear whether this film is a comment on racism in particular, bigotry in general or perhaps even speciesism. In the end, the larger statement of "White God" remains, well, fuzzy.

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