The sight of 250 dogs running around Budapest must be quite a spectacle on a giant movie screen. Director Kornél Mundruczó’s White God, which won Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year, gives the viewer a taste of that spectacle in its opening shot. But it delays gratification for nearly an hour and a half. While the move immediately generates intrigue, it adds nothing aesthetically and in fact prepares audiences for the worst part of the movie. It suggests something inherently ridiculous and silly (which it is) with a stone-faced seriousness that the film finally does not earn.

The story begins simply and becomes something strange. Lili (Zsófia Psotta), with her dog Hagen, is forced to move in with her father. It does not go well. The state levies a tax on mixed-breed dogs like Hagen, and Lili’s dad doesn’t want to pay up so he abandons the poor dog. Much of White God juxtaposes sad, rebellious Lili with the intelligent but eventually captured and abused Hagen, but any similarities to Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar end there. Lili’s story of “lost dog” posters, a difficult music teacher and adolescent partying is stale, unredeemed even by an atmospheric set piece at an illicit party. Hagen’s life, on the other hand, mutates repeatedly, from silly to serious and back again. The dog’s adventures eluding authorities are not devoid of meaning. Up to this point (the film takes its time getting here), animal neglect is rampant and played up in a way that makes Lili seem like the only person in the world who cares about the plight of dogs. Mundruczó shoots Hagen’s experiences with the same syntax with which humans are traditionally shot, instilling dogs with humanity. Short chase sequences alternate with longer search sequences that focus on the dog’s point of view. The remarkably well trained dogs are a perfect match for hyper-semiotic close-ups that give significant meaning to the animals’ every move. Reverse-shots, cutaways and close-ups give the impression that dogs are thinking through, listening and planning their next step, just as a human hiding from a potentially lethal pursuer might.

The unexpected success of these sequences makes it even more surprising when White God briefly turns into a gritty indictment of dogfighting. We see the aftermath of one fight (a bleeding dog being dragged out of the ring) and Hagen’s fight, but the lead-up is what’s really terrifying. We see a trainer feeding Hagen chemicals to make him more aggressive; forcing him to work for pieces of raw dog-meat; drugging him so the trainer can sharpen his teeth. Mundruczó takes his time, letting these actions play out at a modest, deliberate pace that underscores the casual horror of the whole thing.

Up to a point, White God is a surprisingly affecting animal movie bogged down by an uninspired human movie. But the film crashes and burns when another set of twists and turns leads to a finale meant to play like a horror film. The trouble is that Mundruczó has no sense of how to put together the elements of horror. The film’s climactic scenes are not the least bit scary, its crowd responses to runaway dogs (hiding in their cars, screaming and crying) too far removed from even the film’s reality to invoke horror.

The film’s intentions are vague at best. Is it a metaphor for the treatment of racial minorities? This interpretation falls apart under scrutiny. Why is being a mixed-breed (or a “mutt,” used as a pejorative) worse than being a purebred? Do all racial minorities have the same experience? Why is the story completely devoid of class and social conflict? Why is Lili’s story so unconducive to this reading? What does a throwaway reference to two Romanian kids add?

White God plays better simply as a film about animal welfare, although even this straightforward reading can’t be taken too far. Lili’s father works at a slaughterhouse, where at the beginning of the film we see in graphic detail a cow’s skin falling off its body. Lili, the only good-willed person in the entire film, is apparently a vegetarian. Meat is for dogs, we might think, but nothing is worse than watching Hagen forced to eat and fight other dogs. Indeed, if dogs are like humans, why should we hold them to a different standard? Perhaps we shouldn’t, and the slaughterhouse sequence is a blunt comment on the way we treat animals in general. The film points in a different direction, establishing equality in the film’s last shot.

White God is at best a simple film or a naïve one. The film is not without charms, particularly in its amazing dog performances, but the fun gives way to something preposterous long before the credits roll. In the end, its virtues feel incidental while its flaws are a result of a deplorable pretentiousness from an overly ambitious team that seemingly underthought the film every step of the way.

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