How does a touching girl-and-her-dog movie turn into a blood-soaked tale of vengeance and revolt?
Brilliantly, that's how, in Kornél Mundruczó's White God.
Hungary's official entry in the 2015 Academy Awards foreign-language competition, and winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at last year's Cannes festival, White God offers a dark - very dark - take on the way humans exert authority, and superiority, over our fellow creatures.
Specifically (and metaphorically), dogs. Used to provide companionship, service, and sport, the animals have been treated well, and mistreated terribly, welcomed into some homes and barred from others. Loving pets, feral predators, take your pick.
In the present-day Budapest imagined by Mundruczó, mixed-breed dogs are on the outs: To have one, the owner must pay a heavy fee, and the mutts that run loose are the targets of an overzealous troop of municipal dogcatchers that makes the Philadelphia Parking Authority look like a bunch of slackers.
Enter the big, red-brown quadruped Hagen (Bodie), the constant companion of Lili (Zsófia Psotta), a smart, slight 13-year-old whose mother has left her in the care of her divorced dad (Sándor Zsótér) while she is away on business. Lili's father doesn't like dogs, and a neighbor in his building even less so - its presence is reported to the authorities. Lili sneaks Hagen into her music class at school - she plays trumpet in the orchestra - and then, after her pooch interrupts the rehearsal, they both make a run for it.
Before long, though, a tearful Lili and a hangdog Hagen are saying their farewells, and off to the pound he goes. And this wickedly satirical parable turns from a Disney movie into something like 12 Years a Slave: Hagen running with a pack of outcast dogs, then caught by a one-eyed vagrant who sells him to a dogfighting racketeer. Hagen gets sold again, this time to a trainer who injects him with drugs, prods, pokes, and beats him, turning the beast into exactly that: a snarling combatant, ready to kill.
All the while, Lili is keeping a lookout for her friend. Inevitably, she finds him - or he, her.
Beautifully shot in the old, grand quarters of the city, and staged with astounding realism - dozens of dogs roaming the streets, leaping walls, and wreaking havoc - White God can, of course, be read as allegory. Substitute the dogs for some perceived underclass, a group of underlings, and you have a social and political commentary that isn't pretty at all.
An epigram from Rilke - "Everything terrible is something that needs our love" - begins the film.
And what ends White God? A message of either hope or despair, but any way you look at it, it's awesome.
Directed by Kornél Mundruczó. With Zsófia Psotta, Sándor Zsótér and Bodie. In Hungarian with subtitles. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 1 min.
Parent's guide: R (violence, animal cruelty, human cruelty, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Bourse.EndText