Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

White God

(Fehér isten, Hungary, Sweden, Germany, 2014)

Every once in a while a movie comes along that totally blindsides me. You think you are going to see one thing, and it turns out to be something entirely different. Here’s how it starts out:

Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is a twelve-year-old girl living in Budapest, who has a beloved mutt named Hagen. Her mother is off to Australia for a few months, and she has to stay with her father, who is a bit of a dick. After some frustrations, Daddy ditches the mutt at the side of the road. Lili is, of course, furious, and begins searching for the dog and acting out a lot. Hagen must learn to fend for himself in the big city with a lot of other strays.

A perfect setup for a heartwarming story of loss and reunion, right? Loveable dog overcomes obstacles to find his dear little Lili. It’s a story that’s been done a hundred times, and never fails to please.

Only it’s not like that at all. Hagen is soon taken by a dog fighting man who brutalizes him mercilessly in scenes that are damn hard to watch. He fights in the ring, kills another dog, escapes, ends up at the pound …

And I won’t go farther than that, except to say that at this point it jumps the realism rails and becomes some sort of metaphor for racism, the rich against the poor, and stuff like that. I mean, no one expects you to believe the scenes that follow, of 274 half-breed dogs, mostly big dogs, overrunning downtown Budapest and doing things that dogs just don’t do.

Now, I’ve never much for metaphor and symbolism … but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like this one. I guess a big part of it is the dogs themselves. The sight of hundreds of dogs racing through the city streets is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in a movie in a long time, particularly when you realize there was no CGI involved, these were all real dogs …

I kept thinking, this must have been a nightmare to film. Getting one dog to perform for the camera is hard enough. But 274? (A world record, apparently.) So we were very glad they had a Making Of short to go along with the film, which showed all the ingenious tricks they used to make these pups do what needed to be done. There is a note right up front, something like: All the untrained dogs in this film were taken off the streets, and after filming were placed in adoptive homes. That’s nice. The trainers said that not a single dog was harmed in any way, and went into the elaborate precautions they took so it would be that way.

This was very reassuring when it came to the scenes of the dog fight. Lee was really upset, thought the dogs were being too violent with each other. So they covered that, showed that the dogs were covered in blood make-up and were actually having a great old time, playing with each other as dogs love to do. The violence all came in cleverly editing short shots so it looked as if they were trying to kill each other. And the sounds of them snarling? Recorded by human voice actors in Sweden!

So, if you are a dog lover, like we are, you might find this very hard to watch … and you should, it was intended to expose the awful things that can happen to strays. But don’t worry about the real dogs. They were having a ball.