By Paul Risker.
White God (Fehér istenr, 2014) emerges into being amidst a dreamy haze. While there is a lightness to the image of motion, its confinement within the rectangular frame meets with a weightier force. And as the film’s title intrudes quickly upon this dreamlike sequence, a powerful note is struck that is reminiscent of the moment of waking: the pictures and sound of the dream absorbed into the void as we re-enter consciousness. This opening prologue is a collision of dream and nightmare. While the image of the young protagonist riding her bike invokes an impression of youthful freedom, the music with the images of dogs en masse in pursuit encroach on any such impression. But look keenly and one sees a prophetic sequence. It is not prophetic of a chase, however, but rather the heartfelt narrative of two characters (a girl and her dog), who are on parallel journeys to reconnect the path they once shared.
Within narrative fiction there are opposing approaches that break down beyond the structural level. The first are those narratives in which the dramatic events offer a story only on the structural level. The second, of which White God is an example, are those narratives in which the dramatic events and the personal dramas are a doorway to the inner sanctum or subtext of the film. It is this second type that contextualises cinema as a purveyor of ideas, and if White God’s narrative is perceived as simple, then it is a deceptive simple one that requires an engaged spectator to uncover its thematic layers.
There is the question as to whether every narrative by a natural and unintended consequence of its storytellers possesses a layer of subtext. I suppose here I am positing the presence of some creative metaphysical process that may have a hand in creating metaphor to infer something deeper. Novelists have frequently related how the deeper meaning or themes never consciously occurred or influenced the writing and are perceived only later. It is not the intention to diminish writer-director Kornél Mundruczó’s work, but the superficial simplicity of White God invariably posits whether Mundruczó is indicative of the storyteller as a creative prophet or conduit for metaphysical creative forces that could define the role of the artist. Does a storyteller not just steer the narrative path upon which meaning emerges from tried and tested archetypal characters and stories? If so it would brand the storytelling process as metaphysical, but invariably such a discussion could never result in a black and white answer.
The above philosophising aside, one of the early themes developed to infer White God’s identity as a purveyor of ideas is the reflection on how we habitually place such importance upon feelings of affection and loyalty. Together they allow one to form moral and even idealistic principles. These can dictate our actions and sense of value in oneself and influence an harmonic or contentious interaction with the world around us. Together they determine the respect we are willing to impart, and within the broader context of White God, the idea of interaction is a pertinent thematic thread.
The writing of this review happened to coincide with my first encounter with Samuel Fuller’s White Dog (1982), a notable work on the subject of impeded moral development: all told within the context of the relationship of man and canine. Mundruczó’s White God forages in similar terrain, and within its unfolding narrative emerges the idea that neither man or animal are born good or bad, moral or immoral. Rather we are products of our adolescent development, and therein our interactions with the world around us. As with Fuller’s film the pervading sense is that a forged nature is a difficult one to break, although Mundruczó’s film inevitably has deep contrasts to Fuller’s. On the human level and as a treatise on interaction, White God observes that the way in which the girl engages with her world – mood and temperament as either harmonic or contentious – is wholly dependent on her surroundings. Mundruczó uses the switch between the maternal and the paternal home to reflect identity as something that is nurtured and not created. Beyond the contemplation of uprooting one’s nature, White God infers deeper still that emotional bonds, which form our sense of self and modes of interaction, are as difficult to break as it is to reshape identity.
If White God could be accused of riding an emotional wave, then it is unapologetic for doing so. The moments in which it becomes an uncomfortable film, in particular the illegal dog fight, are like emotional waves crashing into our minds. But throughout the film as a whole Mundruczó creates an emotional melody that avoids giving into excess. Despite notable musical cues throughout, mostly invoking sadness, angst and empathy of this girl and her dog’s turbulent quest for unification, it remains a balanced rather than an overly saccharine affair. As with the loud and quiet ebb and flow of music, Mundruczó understands emotional restraint, and he knows how to navigate around these emotional and sensory pitfalls to pick his strongest moments. But even the violence in the dog fight scene is measured, never gratuitous nor does it attempt to overpower us with shock. With a deft hand he guides us along the crest of the wave, allowing us to empathise for and therein forge an emotional bond with his two lead protagonists. In the dog fight scene Mundruczó explores how emotional connection is one forged out of familiarity, and which speaks of the way in which we fundamentally engage with narratives. Specifically it addresses the way in which we unconsciously create a sense of loyalty towards characters. Despite both dogs being victims of their owners’ violent desires, we nevertheless form an emotionally impulsive, blind or naïve protagonist versus antagonist perspective.
Mundruczó’s film is a proponent of the merging of emotion and entertainment with subtle introspection. Within the canon of films at whose heart is a human-animal relationship, not since Niki Caro’s Whale Rider (2002) has there been a film that places itself as a formidable entry within the cinema. White God is deceptively simple film that stings with emotion and offers an intimate connection with its human and non-human protagonists.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.