Directed by Kornél Mundruczó
13-year-old Lili is separated from her mother at the beginning of the movie. We aren’t told why, but she is sent to live with her father. Unfortunately, Lili’s father is the first of many human characters we meet who seem to lack any semblance of empathy or humanity. This is a recurring theme; we consistently see the evil and judgement that humans are capable of. Lili is a nice counter-balance to this, as she provides some much needed humanity to the film, even if this isn’t her story.
No, this story is about her mixed-breed dog, Hagel. A tax is required to own a mixed-breed dog rather than a purebred dog; such is the intolerance within the human characters and the world they inhabit. The judgement, the contempt. The obvious allegory for racism.
Not being purebred, Lili’s father doesn’t take long to make his decision about her dog, and in a heartbreaking scene Lili parts with Hagel, his life now one lived out on the streets with other mixed-breed, unwanted dogs. The dog catchers don’t have a second thought about these mutts; their instant reaction is to get the dogs off the streets and into the pound. They certainly aren’t scared to play rough, and they also don’t mind lying about the conditions within the pound either.
I was holding my dog closely while watching this as there are some awfully confronting scenes, as at one point a man takes Hagel under his wing to become a fighting dog, and begins to train him as such. Hagel’s personality changes as a result of being treated this way, turning from a friendly family dog into a blood-thirsty hound. The transformation is chilling.
After more skirmishes with the dog-catchers, Hagel manages to free all the dogs in the pound, and as a pack they take revenge on the men who have hurt Hagel. At one point the dogs are described as running with military-like organisation, which they certainly are – over 200 of them bolting down the streets of Budapest.
The film is obviously making a political point, though I can’t say I can nail it down as the film can be seen in many different ways. While taken from a book titled White Dog, which had a vaguely similar premise, the title of the movie suggests that white people play god; which they do for the most part, especially within the film. Every human who treats the dogs cruelly are white. Perhaps that is an over-simplified way of looking at things, but it is hard to ignore.
This movie is Hungarian and given the refugee crisis that is hitting Europe hard at this time, the contempt and judgement of the characters against the dogs could easily be compared to the ignorance of many who see refugees as invaders. I am living in Australia and I certainly have come across that attitude many times. Having mixed-breed dogs take the place of any politically oppressed group of people I thought was a incredibly creative idea, and the dogs convincingly tell the tale, revolting against their human oppressors. This is again relevant to today’s geo-political climate, especially in the Middle-East, where we have witnessed both revolution and oppression for many years.
Though a little uneven in places, and very… convenient in others, this can all be forgiven after witnessing the final scene. It brought a tear to my eye as I gave my dog a big hug. It is one of the most moving endings to a film that I have ever witnessed.
While I did find this hard to watch at times, it was certainly rewarding. It has a very pessimistic tone, painting almost all humans as greedy and cruel, but Lili stands tall against what has happened and does everything she can to find her dog. Her personality is filled with positive traits that make us the unique creatures we are, and her presence lightens the tone of a very dark film. For a first time on the big screen, Zsófia Psotta does an incredible job as the young Lili. The two dogs who play Hagel are amazing and their performances are better than any of the acting done by humans, with the exception of Zsófia Psotta. Not to say the acting is bad, not at all, but the dog handlers must be commended, as all the dogs used were taken from the street and display an incredible amount of restraint and intelligence.
This is a film like no other.
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