Thirteen-year-old Lili and her dog, Hagen, have a typical relationship of mutual devotion, the golden brown mutt habitually looking up at his winsome owner with a mixture of nobility and adoration. But in the world created by Hungarian filmmaker Kornel Mundruczo in the provocative social parable “White God,” Hagen isn’t the wise, loyal, magnificent creature Lili sees. Rather, as a mixed breed, he’s marginalized and despised — a four-legged symbol of all groups oppressed by nativist movements and rigid orthodoxies.
The metaphor goes only so far in “White God,” which begins with a stunning sequence in which Lili (portrayed with admirable composure by Zsofia Psotta) is riding her bike through empty Budapest streets, chased by a huge pack of silently running dogs. “White God” then backs up in time to when Lili’s unfeeling father, a punctilious meat inspector, throws Hagen onto the streets, unwilling to pay the tax charged by the state for keeping undesirable animals.
Undocumented and unloved, Hagen proceeds to become embroiled in any number of misadventures, including a high-stakes chase by animal control officials and a brief, brutalizing stint with a sadistic dogfighting impresario.
Mundruczo cleverly masks innocent dog-play as vicious savagery, smearing Hagen with blood and goading him to growl and snarl like a “Homeward Bound” stand-in who has just found his inner Cujo. (Hagen is played by two fabulous dogs, Luke and Body, the latter of whom was the hit of the Cannes Film Festival last year.) But the scenes of abuse that make up the heart of “White God” will nonetheless prove disquieting for animal lovers, who may be assured — according to the filmmaker — that no dogs were harmed during filming. In fact, all of the dogs wound up being adopted.
These off-screen facts are important to bear in mind while watching Hagen descend into various torturous underworlds, each a representation of some form of human chauvinism. Meanwhile, Lili undergoes her own coming-of-age trials, culminating in a third act awash in equal parts potent metaphor, dazzling genre exercise and inspired lunacy. Even those who don’t buy in completely to Mundruczo’s parable will be impressed by his canine crowd scenes, staged with ambition, skill and genuinely original vision.
Perhaps one of Mundruczo’s points is that humans tend to treat animals with more compassion than their fellow people. Still, he has cast a beguiling ensemble of canine characters as stand-ins for the world’s oppressed. There’s no doubt whom viewers will be cheering for in “White God,” even when the time comes to decide whether to be man’s best friend or stick it to The Man.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains violent content, including bloody images, and profanity. In Hungarian and English with subtitles. 119 minutes.