Review: White God

Mark Reynolds 

Lassie comes home – and this time it's personal.

This crazily ambitious and visually impressive film from Hungarian director Kornél Madruczó imagines a not-so-distant dystopia in which man’s best friend turns nasty in the face of persistent mistreatment. Intended as an allegory for contemporary Europe’s deep-seated distrust, ignorance and victimisation of its immigrant underclasses, this is a bold jumble of social realism and violent fantasy with a compassionate heart.

An anxious but determined teenage girl frantically cycles through a deserted Budapest, pursued and overrun by a hundreds-strong pack of dogs of all shapes and sizes. Who is she? What happened to shut down the city? And who let the dogs out?

The clock rewinds and the story begins afresh with the girl, Lili (Zsófia Psotta), being dropped off with her beloved cross-breed dog Hagen with her estranged dad Daniel (Sándor Zsótér) as mum goes off to Australia on an extended work trip. His cramped apartment has a no pets policy – and worse still, the city has introduced a high tax on impure dogs which means owners are dumping their non-pedigree mutts on the streets, and rescue shelters are overcrowded.

With no means to put up Hagen or pay the fine, Daniel insists on dumping the dog at a busy intersection. Both Hagen and Lili are bewildered and heartbroken, and we follow the dog and the girl as he scavenges for food and makes the acquaintance of some other furry discards, and she scours the streets for any sign of her beloved pet, hoping against hope they will be reunited.

Before long the trusting Hagen is duped by desperate and criminally minded humans, traded for the price of a meal then allowed to fall into the hands of a dog-fight trainer. In harrowing scenes, Hagen is brutalised into becoming top dog on the fighting circuit, while the increasingly surly and dejected Lili threatens to go off the rails.

In a thrilling last half hour, Hagen seizes an opportunity to escape, releasing all the dogs from an overflowing pound, and leads them on a rampage around the city taking merciless revenge on the humans who have made them savage. Refusing to give up her search for Hagen, Lili realises she may be the only person with the courage and skills to tame the understandably vicious beasts.

Psotta is remarkably assured in her first screen role, but none of the human actors can match the range and appeal of the two dogs playing Hagen – in turn affectionate, inquisitive, perplexed and extremely dangerous. So take a bow – and a hearty wow to Luke, Body and unstinting animal trainer Teresa Ann Miller.

Barking, tender, terrifying and unlike any film you’ve ever seen. Sit, shake and prepare to be rolled over.

White God is in cinemas from Friday 27 February.

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