Dogs eclipse humans at Cannes in Hungarian canine thriller

CANNES, France - A girl rides her bicycle in the deserted streets of Budapest. Suddenly, a pack of wild dogs bursts from round a corner, hurtling towards her as she anxiously pedals on.

The dramatic opener of "White God", the latest film by Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo competing in the Cannes Film Festival, sets the scene for a strange, dystopian canine ride that has critics intrigued.

In the story, Hagen - the beloved dog of 13-year-old Lili - is dragged through heartbreak and violence after being abandoned on the side of a highway, before toughing up and exacting his revenge with the help of fellow, wronged mutts.

The gold-furred mongrel is played by two dogs - real-life brothers Luke and Body - and the latter stole the show at the screening when he appeared with a bow tie around his neck, barking his appreciation and performing a few tricks.

Symbol for oppressed, outcast

But his five-star treatment in the French Riviera resort contrasts sharply with the way his character Hagen is handled in the film.

As a mongrel and not a pure-breed, Hagen is denigrated by every human being except his devoted owner Lili.

But when the lonely girl finds herself staying with her father when her mother travels abroad, problems abound and Lili's dad ends up abandoning her best friend on the side of a highway.

Unused to being alone, a whimpering Hagen has to survive with other strays - including a cute mutt who saves him from more than one scrape.

Lili desperately looks for her friend, whose trust in humans proves to be his downfall. He is sold off to a man who trains him how to fight, gradually turning a lovable, adoring dog into a violent, killing machine.

By the end of the film, an unrecognisable Hagen rises up against his oppressors and leads a pack of other strays on a murderous spree through Budapest.

For Mundruczo, Hagen is a symbol of the marginalised and oppressed and the director drew inspiration for the film on the current political situation in Hungary and much of Europe, where rising populism and nationalism is causing concern.

In Hungary, for instance, the far-right Jobbik party is now the third largest bloc in parliament.

"In my eyes, art is communication and art is criticism," he told AFP.

250 street dogs

Mundruczo was inspired to use dogs to depict the oppressed by South African novelist J. M. Coetzee, who has written about the human treatment of animals in several books including Booker Prize-winner "Disgrace."

"His works called attention to the fact that there is a layer below even the most outcast of all, consisting of another species of intelligent, rational beings that can be exploited in any manner by humans: animals," he said in production notes.

Some 250 street dogs were used as supporting canine actors in the film, and new homes were found for all of them after the shoot.

Finding the right dog to play Hagen, though, was a challenge.

"We looked for three months," Teresa Ann Miller, a dog trainer for the movie industry who taught Body and Luke all their tricks, told AFP.

"I finally found him online and it was a small family who had too many big dogs and had to find a home for them," she said, adding she promptly acquired two brothers to play the one part.

Training them took five months before the young mongrels were ready for their moment of stardom.

All in all, critics have been seduced by the acting skills of the dogs in the film, which is competing in the "Un Certain Regard" section of the Cannes Film Festival that seeks to recognise new talent and encourage innovative, daring work.

"Cast credits include a deserved mention for Hagen performers Luke and Body, but many dogs have their day here," said entertainment industry magazine Variety.