But I will restore you to health
and heal your wounds,’
declares the Lord,
‘because you are called an outcast,
Zion for whom no one cares.’
The opening moments of White God are quietly petrifying as the silent and empty streets of Budapest are suddenly overwhelmed with a surge of dogs, running with wanton freedom. It feels unsettling more than scary, because these are everyday dogs, the pets we have in our homes, man’s best friend. Yet we also have to recognize that these are still animals, and they will defend themselves with tooth and claw. Our control and authority over these tamed creatures has its limits, especially when our authority looks more like domination and violence.
In his seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire proposes a new sort of relationship between the learned and the learner, the authority figure and those under authority. His idealistic vision is of a relationship of mutual trust and dialogue, liberation from what keeps both parties dehumanized by the systems of injustice and oppression. He recognized that the breaking of this system would be painful, even angry and violent, as the oppressed loosed themselves from the chains and leashes of oppression.
What does a Latin American treatise on systemic oppression have to do with a Hungarian movie about dogs? Everything.
White God would best be described as an allegory about the relationship between oppression and oppressor. It is Hitchcock’s The Birds meets the Dardennes’ La Promesse; it is a mashup of District 9 with Homeward Bound. The film centers on the relationship between two characters, thirteen-year-old Lili and her beloved pet mutt, Hagen. Lili is left to live with her father, a gruff professor who doesn’t appear to have much of a relationship with his daughter. Hagen’s presence brings instant tension to the situation, as her father doesn’t approve. Neither does the nosy apartment neighbor, who reports Hagen to the authorities. When a better solution doesn’t present itself, Lili’s father offers a choice: give Hagen to the pound (where he’d likely be put down) or abandon him to the streets on his own. When Lili cannot make either choice—how could she?—Hagen is dropped from the car on the side of a busy street and left on his own as Lili mourns the loss of her beloved pet.
What follows is the parallel story between Lili and Hagen, fellow outcasts and oppressed. The dog navigates the difficult life on the streets of Budapest, trying to avoid dog catchers and survive illegal dog fights. The girl navigates the difficult life of puberty and adolescence, with its constant social pressures and frustrating adults. Both characters are systemically abandoned or abused by the adults in their lives—Hagen’s abuse is much more visceral and physical, while Lili endures the verbal ridicule of adults who expect her to be an adult while treating her like a child.
As the parallel stories leading to the thrilling climax, White God manages to wear its message on its sleeve—Oppression is Bad—while still remaining complex and full of intriguing ideas. The parallels between Lili and Hagen are more thematic than concrete, and the final shot is a stunning moment of catharsis. The dogs of White God are not fully anthropomorphic in that they *have* to represent human characters or emotions. They are still wholly dogs; their animal instincts and reactions are present. Still, we as the audience quickly see Hagen as a rich and interesting character, with his own motives and patterns. In fact, I’d argue that Hagen is a more complex character than Lili, though both are affecting in their own ways.
As I see it, the titular “god” of this film is system of authoritarian oppression represented by the adults in the film who control, berate, and dismiss both the dogs and the teens as less and other. I remember Freire’s vision of liberation of the oppressed through a sense of mutual trust between teacher and learner, authority figure and the masses. Freire contends that when the oppressive figure practices humility, they, too, find redemption and freedom from the broken system that held them in place. Both Freire and White God reveal that both oppressor and outcast are in need of deliverance, a freedom achieved only when they are humbled before the face of each other.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2844798/