Saturday, March 28, 2015

‘Reality on a special day’: White God and the power of a parable

Lili, played by Zsófia Psotta, and her dog, Hagen, share a moment of peace in White God.

I cannot tell you what White God is. That is to say: I can tell you what it is about, but I cannot tell you what it is. Recognizable tropes abound from such disparate genres as coming-of-age family films, satirical black comedies, grindhouse slasher pictures, and incendiary political thrillers. It is, by turns, each of these, and in so being, it transcends them all. White God is not defined by its genre but by the boundlessness of its scope and the vibrancy of its storytelling.

The film played last week in New York City as part of the Lincoln Center and Museum of Modern Art’s New Directors, New Films Festival. Director Kornél Mundruczó and co-writer Kata Wéber were on hand to introduce the film and stayed for a question-and-answer session after the screening. White God has played to rave reviews at festivals around the world, even winning the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes last year, and finally opens in select theaters for American audiences this weekend.

‘A very fragile question’

Director Kornél Mundruczó
Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is an average 13-year-old Hungarian girl whose best friend seems to be her dog, Hagen. She is forced to stay with her father (Sándor Zsótér) for a few months while her mother goes on a trip with her new boyfriend. Faced with paying a fine because the dog is a mutt, Lili and her father must decide whether to take him to a shelter, where he will most likely be put down, or set him loose on the streets. Though Lili protests that they should do neither, her father leaves him on the side of the road, and so begins Hagen and Lili’s long journey back to one another.

It is a familiar enough premise and could have made for a simple tale about a girl and her dog, but Mundruczó, Wéber, their other co-writer, Viktória Petrányi, have no interest in simplicity. Instead, they tell the parallel stories of two loners living in a culture that treats outcasts with disdain when they are noticed at all. In their own ways, Hagen and Lili are both pushed aside, beaten down, and kicked around by a world that has no need for them. How they choose to rebel against this treatment is the basis for the movie’s final point about where we are all headed if we do not stand up and take notice of the culture we have let fester.

“I had a huge anger about my society,” said Mundruczó, through a thick Hungarian accent. “Just standing in a dog pound, I felt that shame that we’re talking about. I was also part of the [movie] business, and I have a responsibility to talk about my society and criticize my society as much as I can. This movie was on the one hand very slow because of financing and shooting, but we wrote the script in one month, with really reflecting how [criticizing our society] is a good thing. Let’s face it, our society, with the movie. Of course, still, it’s a very fragile question.”

Mundruczó paints a picture of a nation in decline and a society that is coming apart at the seams due to its inequities. On top are the authority figures such as the teachers, the police, and in Hagen’s case, the dog catchers. Below are the hungry masses, the abused, and the forgotten. As a system, it is unsustainable, and Mundruczó sees this. A change is going to come, and that the revolution is filmed from the point of view of hundreds of stray dogs is the film’s master stroke.

‘An emotional draw’

Lili’s story functions as a more traditional tale of a girl growing up, but Hagen goes through hell. While Lili experiences all the pains of adolescence such as run-ins with the law, experimentation with drugs, and trouble at home and school, Hagen is literally beaten and broken until something inside him snaps. At a key moment, after being forced to commit an unspeakably awful act, he decides he is no longer anyone’s dog. He is his own master. However, these two stories do not work without one another.

Though Lili and Hagen begin the story together and the story ends with them in the same place, their separate and complementary character arcs imbue the film’s climax with a depth of emotion that would have been impossible to achieve otherwise. In a more traditional narrative, the tension would be derived from whether or not these two will find each other again, but they are so fundamentally changed by the events that transpire that we are left to wonder if they will even recognize each other when they do.

“It’s a mirroring story, somehow, between these two characters,” said Wéber. “We wanted to make this film about the dog, a dog in Budapest, but then we realized that we need a counter-story, something that grabs our attention and gives us an angle, how to see the loss of this dog. … I think this helps us to really be able to follow the story as free as possible, almost like a child jumping from one genre to the other. So, I think that’s why it was a good choice to have this character [of Lili] and also an emotional draw, which can pull us through this whole journey with such different challenges and characters also.”

‘That was my lesson’

Mundruczó and co-writer Kata Wéber
On a technical level, White God manages to pull off a number of seemingly impossible feats, not the least of which is casting more than 200 real dogs adopted from shelters to portray the film’s revolutionary army, such as it is. In developing the film, Mundruczó had two hard and fast rules: There would be no CGI, and there would be no trained, purebred dogs. All of the dogs had to be “newcomers from the pounds,” as he put it.

I’m quite a control-freak director – hopefully not anymore,” he said. “That was my lesson: to give [the dogs] lots of freedom, and they really played. It was shooting a very special method because we use one week shooting, one week training time, and [the dogs] drive the script. … They can’t do what they cannot, so it was really like we worked together, and it taught me a lot about patient curiosity and two races can cooperate.”

That patient curiosity pays off in spades in the film’s extended climax as wave after wave of dogs crashes down upon the city. Even before that, though, Mundruczó is able to capture the real world of these animals as they experience it. In a turn of events straight out of “Oliver Twist,” Hagen comes upon a group of stray dogs at an abandoned housing project that functions as its own little society. The dogs run, jump, play, and fight in ways that could never be taught, and Mundruczó is smart enough to let his camera simply observe the action.

Cinematographer Marcell Rév keeps the camera near the ground for much of the film, placing the audience squarely at the level of the dogs. What they see, we see. What they feel, we feel. It is an ingenious way both of putting viewers in the headspace of the animals and of subtly telling us who the true heroes of the story are.

It is to Rév and editor Dávid Janscó’s credit that the film never lacks for energy, despite being wordless for more than half its runtime. Janscó deftly cuts back and forth between two wildly different tones as the film shifts seamlessly from neo-realist drama to surrealist fable without sacrificing either its storytelling or its political ambitions.

‘It wants to be a parable’

The filmmakers’ facility for accomplishing both goals – relating a touching story about a girl and her dog, while creating a compelling metaphor for revolution – is finally what makes White God so impressive. Few filmmakers would have the audacity to put something so strange on screen, something that is equal parts Au Hasard Balthasar and Jurassic Park, two movies Mundruczó said he showed the crew while making the film.

The director and his collaborators never back away from the challenge they have set for themselves, allowing the everyday drama of the film’s first two acts to bleed into the fantastical final act without concern for breaking the “reality” of the story. Too often, as audiences, we demand movies be one or the other – hyper-real drama or far-fetched escapism. Mundruczó, Petrányi, and Wéber let the real and the surreal co-exist in their screenplay, as it does in so much of life, and the picture is more honest and gripping because of it.

“Sometimes, we say it’s a tale, but it’s more of a parable, which is different, where you can use more extreme characters because it’s a moral story,” said Wéber. “So, you can see it as a reality, but at the same time, it’s more dark because it wants to be a parable, and it wants to be more.”

Added Mundruczó: “It’s not a realistic movie, so we use more like a fairytale, like characters in a tale. But it’s like in our dreams. So it’s reality on a special day.”

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