Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 1 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.
You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.
Hungarian writer/director Kornel Mundruczo adds a canine apocalyptic touch to the familiar “boy and his dog” tale—or, in this case, a girl and her dog. Since her parents’ divorce thirteen-year-old Lili (Zsofia Psotta) has been living with her mother. The latter is going to Australia for three months, so this means moving in with her father Daniel (Sandor Zsoter). At the best of times she does not get along with her authoritarian dad, but when he sees that she has brought her dog Hagen along, he is especially upset. He does not care for animals (the ones he sees daily are dead, he being a meat inspector at a slaughter house), and he lives in an apartment. Added to this is the fact that in Budapest there is a high fee levied on mixed breed dogs, of which Hagen is one, and the mother has not paid the tax.
Sure enough, as the three are entering the apartment building a nosy neighbor compains about the dog. Daniel wants to take the dog to the animal shelter but Lili puts up a fuss. That night he forbids Hagen to sleep in the same room with them. When the dog, missing Lili, compains, she moves her bed roll to sleep with her pet.
The next day at her music school she hides Hagen in a closet while the orchestra rehearses. (It is neat that the piece they are preparing for a concert is Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, as we hear snatches of it throughout the film.) Hagen, of course, raises a ruckus when he escapes from the closet, and Lili leaves the room to follow him, the teacher telling her that if she goes, she is out of the orchestra.
To cut to the chase, with his daughter and the dog in the car, Daniel stops, puts Hagen onto the street, and drives off, his tearful daughter yelling to the dog that she will come back for him. When she does return on her bike, Hagen, of course is gone. The film then cuts back and forth between the two of them, the camera lowered to canine level in the sequences involving the dog. His journey is far rougher than that endured by the famous Lassie: first, because he is constantly being hunted and chased by a pair of animal control officer. There is a large pack of dogs that they are determined to round up. Like Lassie, a much smaller dog befriends Hagen. A homeless man manages to capture our canine hero and then sell him to a brutal fight-dog trainer. Animal lovers will find this portion hard to watch: the man cruelly beating the dog in order to turn the gentle giant into a mean man-hater. He even files Hagen’s teeth to sharp points.
There is a fight and then the now bloodied Hagen escapes to the streets again where he is captured and taken to the dog pond. There, in a nod to the Planet of the Ape series, Hagen becomes the leader of an uprising, setting free the captives and joining forces with the street dogs. Beginning with the insensitive woman attendant, and then the nasty dogfight trainer, a number of humans pay a price for their cruelty. Too bad they didn’t take the Hebrew Bible’s hints about being kind to animals. The old saying that “every dog will have its day” is borne out with a vengeance in the canine apocalyptic last part of the film!
The street rebellion coincides with Lili’s school orchestra presenting their concert, her father having persuaded the teacher to reinstate her. When the dogs surround the hall and try to break in, Lily, sensing that Hagen is amongst them, takes to her bike and goes looking for him. This repeats the pre-opening credit scene with which the film began, a girl on her bike and a large pack of dogs, most of them behind her. At that time we were left to wonder whether they were chasing or following her. The climax is a fantastic one, reminding me a bit of the beautiful early moment in The Mission in which a priest, in a South American jungle where he is surrounded by the Indians who had killed a fellow priest, takes out his oboe and charms his would-be killers with a haunting melody. Good thing Lili had practiced long and hard.
From the above synopsis you can deduce that this is not exactly a variation on Lassie, Come Home to which you can take children. The film is a remarkable work that involved no CGI effects, the director instead relying on head animal trainer Teresa Ann Miller to coax the vast array of dogs into performing their sometimes intricate tasks. Two dogs, Body and Luke, portray Hagen. The film makes a great parable of the exploited fighting back against their oppressors, the director Mundruczo having stated that this is his intention. In the way the various adults treat the dogs we can see references to the the real world’s treatment of the poor, of refugees and immigrants—even Daniel, whose relationship with his resentful daughter changes—at first wants to get rid of Hagen. What happens after the marvelous scene at the climax is left up to us to imagine.
The film’s title is puzzling, there being no reference either to God or to whiteness. I read the intriguing speculation that the title could be a reference to the controversial 1982 Sam Fuller film White Dog in which a trainer tries to change a vicious German Shepherd taught by a white racist to attack any dark-sinned person coming close to it. (It has been pointed out by numerous writers that the difference between the Creator and the lowly dog is that the first last letters are reversed.) If true, then this makes the film all the more relevant in our day when Neo-Nazism is on the rise in Europe and a coded racism still exists among millions of Americans.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the June issue of Visual Parables. A subscription to the journal will also give you access to Lectionary Links, a feature for preachers that links a film to one or more lessons from the Common Lectionary.