White God opens on Friday at the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas

I’m a dedicated cat person, but the promotional material and trailer for the decidedly dog-centric Fehér isten (White God, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, April 3) was more than enough to pique my interest. A massive pack of mutts running loose in the big city? Sign me up!

The result, however, is a film that – while never less than interesting — is only partially successful. Directed by Hungarian Kornél Mundruczó and based on an original screenplay, White God can’t quite decide whether it’s a literal or metaphorical representation of humankind’s innate cruelty to other species – or to its own.

Apparently inspired by Samuel Fuller’s once controversial White Dog, in which a dog trained to attack African-Americans is deprogrammed by Paul Winfield and Kristy McNichol, White God focuses on Hagen, a mixed-breed dog cared for by teenager Lili (Zsófia Psotta). The child of divorced parents, Lili finds herself in the temporary care of father Dániel (Sándor Zsótér), an ill-tempered academic working beneath his station in a slaughterhouse, when Mom departs for a conference in Australia.

Dániel seems pleased enough to see his daughter but objects strongly to the presence of a smelly dog in his apartment. Also unhappy are his neighbors, whose complaints leave Lili with an unpleasant choice: either abandon Hagen on the street, or take him to the pound. Convinced he’ll be euthanized in short order at the animal shelter, Lili opts for the former.

Dumped by the side of the road, Hagen (who, it must be said, is a real cutie) encounters a series of increasingly cruel and unpleasant human beings. Eventually, he finds himself in the possession of a man involved in the city’s underground dog fighting scene, and is transformed in short order from adorable pet to well-oiled (and poorly fed) killing machine.

So far, so realistic – assuming, of course, you’re willing to believe that most people look on dogs as an investment opportunity. However, things begin to take a turn for the surreal around the 75-minute mark, as Hagen escapes from his master, is captured and imprisoned by shelter workers, and leads an improbable but cinematically impressive pound puppy revolution.

In scenes reminiscent of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1971), Hagen and a doggy cast of hundreds run rampant through the city, savaging or terrorizing any humans that cross their path. Soon they’re in control of the deserted streets, and it’s up to Lili – with an assist from some heavily armed police – to put a stop to the mayhem before the city bows and prays before the canine God they’ve made.

These scenes are brilliantly lensed but lead to a final shot that suggests the dogs (or perhaps Lili?) have been imbued with some sort of supernatural power. It’s a misstep, and not a minor one – in fact, I was reminded of another disappointing Hungarian film that tried to dance the fine line between reality and fantasy, Nimród Antal’s Kontroll – and feels like a bit of a cheat. It’s a letdown after an intriguing set-up that promises more than it ultimately delivers.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...