Sunday, 19 October 2014

Fehér Isten [White God] (2014, Hungary); Dir. Kornél Mundruczó

The story goes that in 1929 when the ballots were counted for the inaugural Academy Award for Best Actor, the male performer garnering the most votes was not Emil Jannings, who ultimately received the prize, but a ten year-old orphan of the First World War who had become one of Warner Bros most bankable assets in a succession of cheap and cheerful adventure yarns. His name was Rin Tin Tin. 

Like many apocryphal tales it's probably more revealing than the reality. Jannings' Hollywood career would end shortly afterwards when the introduction of sound rendered his thick German accent impractical. He returned to his homeland, where he made The Blue Angel with Marlene Dietrich, and continued working when the Nazis came to power, being lauded by Goebbels and appearing in several propaganda films during WWII. After the Nazis defeat Jannings was banned from acting, his reputation forever tarnished. Rin Tin Tin on the other hand became a byword for Hollywood's pioneering age and archetype of the scene-stealing animal actor.

Audiences may have grown more sophisticated in the 90 years since Rin Tin Tin rose to fame, but our affinity for animal performers, particularly of the canine variety, remains undiminished. In 2001 critics at the Cannes Festival initiated the Palm Dog Award to recognise noteworthy canine actors, be they real or animated. Past recipients have included Uggie, the undoubted star of Michel Hazanavicius's silent homage The Artist.

This year, Cannes' cynophilic critics awarded the prize to the four-legged cast of White God, Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó's apocalyptic satire about a canine uprising, where it also received The Prize Un Certain Regard. Ahead of a general UK release next year the film was entered in the London Film Festival and an impressive crowd convened at for a screening at the Odeon Covent Garden on a rainy Sunday night on October 12.

Ostensibly it's the story of Hagen, a good natured cross-breed (or mutt, depending on your standpoint) whose 12 year-old owner Lili is forced to move in with her estranged father when her mother goes overseas on business. It's quickly apparent that dad doesn't share Lili's deep affection for Hagen and when tensions finally reach breaking point he hurls the dog into the streets of Budapest to fend for itself.

After briefly finding solace with a community of fellow strays, Hagen falls into the hands of criminals, gets pumped with steroids to make him more aggressive, and is trained for a gruesome career as a fighting dog. When he's then locked up in the dog pound and faces extermination, our hero finally decides it's time to stick it to the Man and instigates a full-blown revolt, which quickly spreads across the city and leaves the human population in besieged terror.

How or what has caused the behaviour of Hagen and his accomplices is never explained, although there is a tongue in cheek implication that it may originate with infected meat at the abattoir where Lili's father works. Even when the dogs begin brutally settling scores with their erstwhile tormentors the tone is more blackly comic than horrifying, sometimes slyly recalling scenes in other 'man vs. beast' movies such as The Birds, Jurassic Park and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Like the latter film in particular we find ourselves siding with the animals when they turn the tables. Everybody loves an underdog.

Yet, in novel contrast to modern Hollywood, the film was entirely shot in live action and required extensive training not only of Hagen (who was in fact played by two American dogs), but the entire canine cast. Knowing this adds an extra appreciation to certain scenes, such as Lili being pursued by the dogs through Budapest's deserted streets and a remarkable closing shot that can only have been achieved through hours of forbearance.

Speaking at a Q&A after the screening, Mundruczó explained how he had originally taken inspiration from J.M. Coatzee's novel Disgrace and the shame he felt looking through the fence of a dog pound and then began to consider the potential of an allegorical tale about the persecution of minorities. "You can criticise your society without a direct political statement, which I think this is something far from art. In my eyes political art is not like journalism" he said.

White God's director Kornél Mundruczó with co screenwriter
Viktória Petrányi (l) at the London Film Festival
Hungarian premier Viktor Orban's anti-liberal, pro-nationalist stance, inspired by Putin's posturing, has seen systemic attacks on national media outlets which don't share his philosophy. Internationally White God has been well received but in Hungary, Mundruczó noted, the critics have been divided by its unclassifiable nature. The public though were far more generous, something which gives the director hope that free speech and independent thought can still prosper.

Some detractors have reproached the distinctly one dimensional characterisation of the human cast, a criticism that seems akin to criticising Some Like It Hot for not being an earnest depiction of transvestitism or organised crime. It's true that some of the more melodramatic scenes between Lili and her father don't quite come off, but the story is obviously a fable, and as such populated largely by stock characters. As a surreal fantasy, and as an incitement to thought, it more than delivers

White God's dedication to the late Miklós Jancsó, the great Hungarian director who often delivered veiled critiques of the political system in films such as The Round-Up, is a reminder of eastern European cinema's proud history of allegorical cinema. Jancsó was able to see a preview of White God shortly before he died early this year and it's no surprise it received his endorsement.

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