The 2015 Sundance Film Festival’s Spectrum section showcased “White God,” a fascinating Hungarian movie from writer-director Kornél Mundruczó (“Delta,” “Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project”). One of the most unusual selections playing in Park City, Utah, the gripping drama depicts a mixed-breed dog as the main character. But “White God” is not your typical cuddly fido flick.
Co-written by Mundruczó, Viktória Petrányi and Kata Webér, the allegorical screenplay represents the cultural clashes fueled by the rising tide of reactionary political and social forces sweeping across contemporary Hungary and Europe in general. More frequently than not, these extreme conservative movements proclaim intolerance of opposing viewpoints — say, progressive politicians and thinkers — as well as ethnic, religious, lower-class and other minorities.
When her mother leaves for Australia on an extended work assignment, 13-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta) must move in with her never-do-well father Daniel (Sándor Zsótér), who lives in a bleak apartment building in Budapest. Lili’s adored dog Hagen is not permitted to stay because her father refuses to buy the expensive license that the government requires for mixed-breed dogs. Such mongrels serve as a metaphor for the “impure” groups of people that society’s traditional demographics may consider undesirable.
A meddling neighbor reports Hagen, bringing the authorities to their door. In search of Lili, the dog make his way to her orchestra rehearsal, creating a ruckus that infuriates the conductor. After her father picks her up, he breaks her heart by angrily throwing the unwanted mutt out of their car. Dogcatchers capture the stray and lock him in a stark animal control facility.
A shady visitor to the pound takes Hagen, who is trained to battle in deadly dogfights. The formerly meek, obedient house pet transforms into a fierce warrior. Soon enough, hardened Hagen learns to rebel against his evil masters. He escapes and frees other “unfit” dogs from their cages, leading them throughout the streets of Budapest to violently revolt against their human masters. Hagen eventually finds his way back to Lili, to whom he remains loyal.
On a surface level, “White God” unspools as an exciting action flick that bleeds into the exploitation horror genre. It thrillingly portrays how humans frequently and systematically abuse dogs, even though they have long been known as man’s best friends. Admittedly, the film’s explicit cruelty is not easy to watch. Director of photography Marcell Rév artfully shoots the stylish scenes, including the unique canine point of view. Mundruczó’s steady pacing supports the palpable tension that he creates. Yet some scenes drag a bit, so the nearly two-hour final cut would have benefited from tighter editing.
The helmer steers his ensemble cast to deliver intense performances, though they are occasionally overly melodramatic. They vividly express their characters’ unstable psychological states, reflecting the prevalent negative mood in today’s Hungary. Mundruczó and lead dog trainer Teresa Ann Miller impressively control Luke and Body, the canine actors playing the lead character Hagen, to display deliberate movements, behaviors and emotions.
(Hungarian and English with subtitles; 116 min.; scope)
Landmark’s E Street Cinema
Opens Sat., April 3
4 out of 5 stars
“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” the crowd-pleasing fable by American indie filmmaker brothers David and Nathan Zellner (“Kid-Thing,” “Goliath”), wowed moviegoers at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. With an impeccable sense of timing, the casually assured direction (credited to David Zellner) shapes the foundation of this delightfully unorthodox road movie. Director of photography Sean Porter’s widescreen cinematography dreamily depicts the otherworldly fantasy, while the award-winning Octopus Project’s haunting score sets an appropriately disorienting tone.
As the leading lady of “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi (Academy Award-nominated for “Babel”) is a pleasure to watch, which is a very good thing since she appears in nearly every scene. She must rely on her facial expressions and body movements to effectively portray Kumiko, who has sparse Japanese dialogue and does not speak English. Evoking a silent movie star, Kikuchi’s largely non-verbal performance charmingly depicts the adorable heroine’s blend of oblivious determination, innocence and melancholy.
In Tokyo, 29-year-old Kumiko leads a solitary life, enduring a deadening routine as an “office lady” for a large company. Her overbearing mother worries about Kumiko, mostly that she may be getting too old to marry and have children. At home, she does get some unconditional love from her rabbit Bunzo.
One day, Kumiko’s life changes forever when she discovers her purpose. She comes across an old VHS cassette of “Fargo,” which opens with titles that claim, “This is a true story.” Obsessed with the scene showing Steve Buscemi’s kidnapper burying the ransom in a frozen field, she embarks on an ill-conceived mission to dig up the hidden treasure, believing the film is actually a treasure map.
Kumiko buys a flight to Minneapolis, Minnesota — the nearest airport to Fargo, North Dakota — with her company’s credit card, which is subsequently canceled. Lacking funds, she hilariously struggles to make her way to Fargo but is unable to speak English with the quirky locals, whose friendly overtures she finds difficult to accept.
The smart script written by David and Nathan Zellner (also credited as producer) mixes dark humor, deadpan dialogue, eccentric characters and unlikely scenarios into a tasty cocktail. The eponymous protagonist’s wistful journey suggests the influence of the laidback black comedy’s executive producers, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. The Zellner brothers’ homage to the Coen brothers (“The Big Lebowski,” “Barton Fink”) appears crystal clear when Kumiko watches their 1996 hit “Fargo.”
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
(English and Japanese with subtitles; 105 min.; scope)
Landmark’s E Street Cinema
4.5 out of 5 stars
“The Salt of the Earth,” an entrancing documentary showcased in SXSW’s Festival Favorites, takes a revealing look at the life and career of legendary Brazilian-French photographer Sebastião Salgado. He is best known for his massive projects in black-and-white photojournalism, particularly in developing countries. His photographs are typically complex compositions full of rich details that are far better seen on the big screen, so do not miss your opportunity to catch the mesmerizing visual poem while it is playing in theaters.
Sebastião’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, and esteemed German auteur Wim Wenders (“Wings of Desire,” “Buena Vista Social Club”) co-directed “The Salt of the Earth,” which was recently nominated for the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Sebastião’s photographs are prized for more than their technical excellence. He is celebrated for elegantly depicting humanism and dignity in his subjects, even among those who have suffered the most — subjects he got to know well by living with them for extended periods. “The Salt of the Earth” ambitiously reviews Sebastião’s vast body of work from around the world. The documentary displays a curated selection of Sebastião’s most memorable pictures, successfully condensing a 40-year legacy into a feature-length running time of nearly two hours.
In the 1990s, Sebastião was burnt out as a photojournalist after covering the genocide in the Congo and Rwanda. Back on his family’s land in Brazil, he and his wife Leila started Instituto Terra to stem the deforestation of the local rainforest. His environmental efforts led him to refocus his photography on the natural world for his current “Genesis” project.
Though certainly powerful, the images may not always speak for themselves. When needed, Wenders and Juliano act as narrators who provide additional context that fleshes out the story. Sebastião’s commentary often accompanies his stills, serving as a sort of master class. The film starts off with Sebastião reflecting on his famous shots of the Serra Pelada mines in Brazil.
Wenders, who is himself a published still photographer, interviews Sebastião through an opaque mirror that displays projections of his photographs. The innovative technique permits the audience to see the master photographer commenting on images that can be viewed simultaneously, a big improvement over the standard talking heads that usually dominate documentaries.
Juliano’s involvement with the documentary provided the filmmakers with very intimate access, particularly since he accompanied Sebastião on his recent photography expeditions, including a trip to Siberia. Juliano’s work with his father may have benefited their complicated relationship. Sebastião’s long absences from home made him more of a mythical creature rather than a real patriarch. His wife was left by herself to manage the family’s domestic obligations, including raising their two sons, one with Down syndrome, largely without a resident father figure.
The Salt of the Earth
(French, English and Portuguese with subtitles; 109 min.)
Landmark’s E Street Cinema
Opens Sat., April 3
4.5 out of 5 stars
Filmfest DC, the 29th annual Washington, DC International Film Festival, returns April 16 to 26. Programming sidebars include “World View – New International Cinema,” “The Lighter Side – International Comedies,” “Trust No One – International Thrillers,” “Justice Matters – Issues of Social Justice,” “Global Rhythms,” “Reel Jazz” and “Shorts Programs.
Filmfest DC selections will play at the Embassy of France, the Goethe-Institut, AMC Mazza Gallerie and Landmark’s E Street Cinema (April 17-25).
(888) 996-4774, www.filmfestdc.org
National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art co-hosts a variety of programs at venues around town. At AFI Silver: Concluding the “Discovering Georgian Cinema” series, director Nino Kirtadze presents two of his films, “The Pipeline Next Door” (April 13, 7 p.m.) and “Don’t Breathe” (April 14, 7 p.m.).
At American University’s Malsi Doyle and Michael Forman Theater, McKinley Building: Paul Smith introduces British filmmaker Ken Loach’s rare documentary, “The Spirit of ’45” (April 10, 7 p.m.), shown with gratitude to the British Council.
At the National Gallery’s West Building Lecture Hall: French Nouvelle Vague auteur Chris Marker’s 1996 “Level Five” (March 29, 4 p.m.; April 1, 2 p.m.) plays in repertory.
Presented with thanks to the Embassy of Poland, the program “Sound of My Soul: Wojciech Bąkowski – Spoken Movies and Other Animations” (April 4, 2:30 p.m.) boasts an appearance by Bąkowski, a Warsaw-based animator and video artist.
Glasgow-based artist Luke Fowler’s montages of archival footage include “To the Editor of Amateur Photographer” (also by Mark Fell), preceded by “Depositions” (April 5, 4 p.m.).
British artist Bill Morrison compiled archival historical footage into “The Miners’ Hymns” (April 11, 2:30 p.m.), accompanied by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s musical score.
The short film anthology “London: Day In, Day Out” (April 12, 4 p.m.) epitomizes the city symphony genre.
Manuel Mozos’s documentary “Others Will Love the Things I Have Loved: João Bénard da Costa” (April 18, 2:30 p.m.) is a unique cinematic and textual portrayal of da Costa, the entrenched director of Lisbon’s Cinemateca Portuguesa.
Shown in conjunction with the Embassy of Spain and AIA|DC Architecture Week 2015, Pablo Bujosa Rodríguez presents his documentary “J. L. Sert – A Nomadic Dream” (April 26, 4 p.m.), a biography of the cutting-edge Spanish-born American architect, city planner and dean of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.
(202) 842-6799, www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/calendar/film-programs.html
AFI Silver Theatre
The eighth annual Festival of New Spanish Cinema (April 9-12) is programmed and produced by SPAIN arts & culture and Pragda.
Co-presented with the National Gallery of Art, the “Discovering Georgian Cinema” series closes with two free films directed by Nino Kirtadze, who appears in person: “The Pipeline Next Door” (April 13, 7 p.m.) and “Don’t Breathe” (April 14, 7 p.m.).
Continuing film series include “Hollywood Exiles in Europe” (through April 15), “Frank Capra in the 1930s” (through April 16) and “Leading Ladies of Hollywood’s Golden Age” (through April 16).
Ana Lily Amirpour’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone,” dubbed “the first Iranian vampire Western,” plays a special engagement (April 13-15).
(301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/silver
Freer Gallery of Art
As part of the series “The Traveler’s Eye: Scenes of Asia” and “Road Works: Films Inspire Writers,” Val Wang, author of “Beijing Bastard: Into the Wilds of Changing China,” introduces Lina Yang’s documentary “Old Men” (April 12, 2 p.m.), followed by Wang’s book signing.
In the same two series, travel writer, blogger and former editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler Keith Bellows introduces the documentary “Gringo Trails” (April 19, 2 p.m.), which precedes a talk with director Pegi Vail, an anthropologist, and Costas Christ, editor-at-large for National Geographic Traveler.
The screening “Angkor’s Children and Arts in Cambodia” (April 26, 2-4 p.m.) precedes a panel discussion with director Lauren Shaw Arn; Chorn Pond, human rights activist and founder of Cambodian Living Arts; Phloeun Prim, executive director of Cambodian Living Arts and CEO of Season Cambodia festival; Elizabeth Becker, former New York Times reporter and author of “When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution”; and Chris Decherd, Khmer Service chief at Voice of America.
(202) 357-2700, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp
Landmark’s E Street Cinema
Landmark’s E Street Cinema hosts Filmfest DC screenings from April 17 to 25.
“The Studio Ghibli Collection: 1984-2014” retrospective concludes with “From Up on Poppy Hill” (April 4-5, 10:30 a.m.), “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” (April 4-5, 1 p.m.), “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” (April 11-12, 10:30 a.m.) and “The Wind Rises” (April 11-12, 1 p.m.)
“Film|Neu Presents,” the new German-language film festival’s year-round showcase, screens “Inbetween Worlds” (April 4, 6:30 p.m.) and “I Feel Like Disco” (April 13, 6:30 p.m.).
(202) 289-1200, www.goethe.de/ins/us/was/ver/enindex.htm