May I suggest that you mark your calendar for April 3rd, because that's when a foreign film which I love will be opening here..... for just one week, although I suspect it will be renewed if enough people express interest in seeing it after the word-of-mouth spreads. As I know it will. Visionary film distributor Magnolia is opening the 2014 Hungarian film Oscar entry, WHITE GOD, at the friendly little Nuart Theatre on that day. That's the Landmark movie house in West L.A. at 11272 Santa Monica Blvd. (319-473-8530) just a block west of the 405 Freeway, with plenty of street parking 'round the corner. It is one of the most engaging, interesting movies I have EVER seen and I have been watching and making films for more than 50 years. After I saw a screening of WHITE GOD several months ago, I told my Huffington readers about this film....but could not review it until it had been scheduled for a Los Angeles release. Now that it's coming here this week, I can unburden myself of a movie which remained vividly implanted in my brain ever since the night I encountered it. Animal lovers, film enthusiasts, anyone who seeks out the unusual, the unique, the human experience, will relish the picture....but with a caveat which I will detail shortly. The film premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival , where it astonished audiences and won the Prize Un Certain Regard. It was also an official selection for the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The woman whom I consider the best film critic in America, the New York Times' Manohla Dargis, wrote: "A fierce and beautiful Hungarian parable about a girl, her dog, and the uprising that's sparked after they are separated. When the dogs break free and run through the streets in 'White God,' demolishing barriers and biting the hands that have hit them, the movie takes a leap into bold political metaphor, offering up a memorable image of the great unwashed gone (literally) barking mad."
Never fear, it is not a political movie.....yes, it is a movie about animals, specifically dogs. And a little girl who is searching for her missing animal. The political parable comes about, I suppose, because the Budapest city government passes a law imposing a severe tax upon mixed breed dogs in apartments (they are considered 'unfit' by the state, preferring pedigree and pure-bred dogs) ....reflecting the political and cultural tensions sweeping contemporary Europe. It's a cautionary tale of the indignities visited upon animals by their supposed 'human superiors.' As Indiewire said: "We share the earth with everything that's alive. And we are absolutely in the middle of a moral crisis."
Our little girl and her dog have been dumped on her divorced father, Daniel (Sandor Zsoterr) by a mother who is leaving the country for three months. He works in an abbatoir, and at the opening we see him dismembering a cow carcass. A crass neighbor reports that their mutt "has to be reported to the Hungarian police." When 13-year old Lili (Zsofia Psotta) discovers her father, in a fit of rage, won't pay the tax and has loosed her beloved dog, Hagen, onto the street, she begins a dangerous journey to get him back. What makes the movie so unique is that at the same time all of the unwanted and so-called 'unfit' mongrel dogs - whose owners have placed them in overcrowded shelters - rise up under a new leader...Hagen, who has learned all too well on his journey through the streets and animal control centers how to bite the hand that beats him. Wandering the streets searching for Lili, he is exposed to many dangerous situations. He has to flee dog-catchers, he is hurt by a nasty beggar, he even becomes a prisoner of a Turkish restaurant owner who is a dog-fighting trainer. After the dogs seize an opportunity to escape and revolt against mankind, courageous Lili is about the only person who can halt the unexpected war between man and dog. (Some of these scenes are so graphic that I question whether this film is appropriate for younger viewers.....or adult viewers who may be queasy about the violence.) Weeks go by and Lili, still bitter at her father, must prepare for her orchestra's annual concert, in which she plays the trumpet.
The director, Kornel Mndruczo, has stunningly choreographed scenes featuring a cast of over 250 canines! The opening shot of the movie is of a hooded Lili bicycling through the deserted streets of Budapest....and while the music slowly builds, we see some dogs begin to follow her. Then not just some dogs, a lot of dogs.....more and more joining the pack that is following her until we realize with a shock that they number in the hundreds! In a New York Times interview with the director, they describe it thusly: "The scene is devoid of digital imagery. These dogs are real. Large, small, furry or short-haired, and all very determined, racing towards the camera en masse. It is an astonishing sequence revisited in greater detail later, and it sets up a moment when subjugated animals rise up against their oppressors, fighting back, taking over and leaving audiences in awe." Indeed. The director comments that the dogs taught him "curiosity, patience, and to change my perspective."
I had a chance to meet and interview the California woman, Teresa Ann Miller, the animal trainer who worked with him and his Hungarian staff to prepare the dogs for the film. "I was known in Europe for my work on a popular Austrian television series, 'Kommissar Rex'," about a German shepherd police dog," she told me. "So when he contacted me, and told me that we had to use a lot of real dogs of mixed breeds doing some impossible things, I was so intrigued I said yes." Ms. Miller was entrusted with the task of finding the dog to play the lead, Hagen, whom I also met that night. "Actually," she told me, "I insisted that we get two Hagens, so they could split the work. Spent weeks searching for the right dog......he had to look friendly yet could be fierce. Finally I found a listing in Arizona for two brothers up for adoption, Luke and Bodie, mixes of Labrador, Shar-Pei and hound. They were young but the moment I saw them, I knew we had our Hagen." She told me how she had adopted them and spent long weeks working with them to get used to unusual situations....noise and other dogs and threatening people. "Then I brought them to Budapest to begin the serious training." I asked her about a sequence in the movie where Hagen has a violent fight with a Rottweiler and she laughed and said, "It was all in the editing. They were friends....we just filmed lots of play." One reviewer at Cannes said the dog was "the Al Pacino of dog actors." About the title, I quickly realized that it was a subtle take on Sam Fuller's 1982 race-relations allegory, White Dog, about a German shepherd who is taught to hate. Myself, I kept thinking of its strange similarity to another film which I loved, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."
I asked about the amazing scenes of the packs of dogs....how did they achieve that miracle of working with so many animals. She explained that she and the Hungarian trainer, Arpad Halasz, had many trainers working with small packs of mixed breeds which they found in shelters all over Hungary, then little by little incorporated them into the large group. "It was five or six months of intense work to get them fit for the challenging scenes. The director had enormous patience," she said admiringly. I was thrilled to learn that, after the film, all of the dogs were adopted.
Yes, this is a dark twist on an underdog story. Be courageous and see it; you will be rewarded by some incredible imagery which will remain with you for a long, long while.
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