review by Cynthia Fuchs, 20 April 2001
bloody Rottweiler. A car chase. A wreck.
(roughly translated as "Love's a Bitch") begins
with a series of gory facts, conveyed with deft, wrenching celerity.
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and written by Guillermo
Arriaga Jordan (reportedly, the screenplay went through thirty-six
drafts over three years), the movie is a tightly edited, wildly
energetic paean to the trauma of relationships, between people and
between people and their dogs. The film's Mexico City is crowded,
dirty, and riven by class disparities, and the opening car chase
leads through it in a way that's half nightmarish, half
hyper-realistic: you feel like you're on a ferocious ride, but when
it ends -- so abruptly in these first few seconds, with metal
crunching, horns blaring, onlookers screaming, and bodies crumpling
-- Oi, the film is only just beginning.
into three sections, all three leading to and from that first car
crash, Amores Perros pulses with an unusual visual
potency, courtesy of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (who uses a
different film stock for each section). The first plot concerns the
passengers in that first car, with the bloody dog: after the
accident, you learn that Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his pal
are on the run after their dog (whimpering in the backseat as they
zoom through the city's busy streets) has been shot by a rival
dog-owner. But before you even know that much, you learn a little
bit about how Octavio gets himself into that dire situation. At the
beginning of his section, Octavio is living with his brother Ramiro
(Marco Perez), Ramiro's pregnant wife, Susana (Vanessa Bauche), and
their baby, in a tiny apartment, along with the brothers' mother,
who daily complains about Ramiro's perpetual poverty. He runs a
drugstore cash register for a measly paycheck, but finds that he can
make significantly more money robbing drugstores. In the robbery
scenes, he turns less mean and more confident. Ramiro and his
partner cover their faces with ski masks, then rub foreheads, an
incongruously tender ritual that leads directly to an
adrenalin-pumping next moment, as they dash inside the store, guns
waving and spittle flying.
Ramiro's extracurricular activities, at first, Octavio appears to be
the less aggressive of the brothers, but as he watches Ramiro abuse
Susana, he develops an increasingly obsessive, even contentious,
affection for her. Disturbed by listening to them in the throes of
noisy make-up sex, Octavio gets her to come outside for a made-up
urgent phone call, then paws her in the hallway, unable to
understand her resistance. He imagines himself her savior, and
discovers that she will pay attention to him when he starts handing
over fat wads of money for Susana to hide in her closet, in
preparation for what Octavio envisions will be a romantic escape
from their bleak existence. That Susana has a different
understanding of their romance is obvious to everyone but Octavio,
who is determined that his version of the story is the right one.
expects to be right in part because, for a brief while, his life
does appear to be perversely charmed. He makes his money in illegal
dogfighting, after accidentally discovering that the family dog, the
Rottweiler Cofi, is a frighteningly proficient killer (who then
hangs out patiently and good-naturedly, while Octavio watches TV in
his teeny bedroom). Vile and alarming, the dogfights dominate this
section of the film, cut up into brief, edgy images and pumped by
hiphop collective Control Machete's "Si Señor" on the
soundtrack. But apparently, it's not enough that the dogfight scenes
-- and in particular, the after-the-dogfight scenes, which show
limp, chewed-up dog bodies -- are flat-out terrible to see. For the
film's U.S. release, Lions Gate has joined with the Humane Society
in a campaign to discourage the activity.
fights serve as ugly counterpoints to stolen moments between Octavio
and Susana, which are in themselves anything but romantic. Rather,
they are rushed and desperate, mini-respites from the rest of the
day but devoid of passion. You know from the start that this section
of the film will effectively end with the accident (though extra
details and consequences are revealed later in the film), but it's
still a jolting transition to the next section, also focused on
betrayal and dashed ambitions.
Valeria (Goya Toledo) is driving her fancy sportscar when she's
slammed by Octavio's car, and badly fractures her leg in the wreck.
Her story involves her coming to terms with an imperfect body and
ruined dreams. Stuck in a wheelchair in her new apartment, gazing
out the window on a billboard featuring her long lithe legs in all
their once-profitable glory. Her wealthy magazine publisher
boyfriend Luis (Jorge Salinas) has just left his wife and children
in order to start a fabulous new life with Valeria. But after the
wreck, Valeria is at a loss, and turns away from Luis, unable to see
him -- or more to the point, herself -- in the way she once did.
so, she devotes her attention to her foofy little pooch, Richie.
Alas, soon after moving in to the new apartment, Richie falls in a
hole in the floor and then spends days whimpering beneath the
floorboards, unable to find his way back: and really, he is a poor
little doggie, saddled with so much symbolic weight! While he's
underneath, Valeria and Luis are just a few feet above, falling
apart, angry, fearful, and mutually hurtful because they are afraid.
While Valeria's teary reactions are understandable, they also
illustrate that she is incapable, at least initially, to live a life
that isn't full of excess and decadence -- she is a literal poster
girl for the social value of wealth and beauty, after all. The film
actually pays more attention to Luis' breakdown: in part he responds
to her collapse, but he's also facing a loss of his own -- Valeria was
his dream, embodied. She can't walk, but Luis becomes impotent,
unable to speak, feel, or even interact with people, now that he's
lost his accustomed self-assurance.
Chivo's (Emilio Echevarria) story wraps up the trilogy in a way that
is at once tragic, cathartic, and galvanizing. An erstwhile
professor and family man, he long ago left that life in order to be
a guerilla revolutionary, only to have his idealism dashed. Now he's
working as a freelance hitman and living in a beat-down house with a
pack of street dogs, whom he loves fiercely. While scoping his
newest mark (who has been contracted by his own brother: yet another
commentary by the film on the ongoing devastation of family
"values"), El Chivo discovers that he's having an affair
with El Chivo's daughter. The daughter is unaware of her father's
existence, having been told as a child that he died. And so El Chivo
begins to watch her from distances, with remorse and self-hatred.
His surveillance of her (shot to match his surveillance of the mark)
makes her look like another one of his targets.
this dilemma arises -- will he kill his daughter's sleazeball amore
for money? -- El Chivo had come to a kind of peace with himself,
with his focus on day-to-day survival and shut-down on all moral
questions. His serenity is even more violently disturbed when he
saves the Rottweiler from the car wreck, brings it home, and nurses
it back to health. Cofi recovers and falls back on his training (or
is it his nature?), attacking El Chivo's other dogs. At this point,
El Chivo must reevaluate what he believes and what he does.
of these narrative strands come together in the car crash, but the
fragments also stand in relation to one another. At once grandly
emotional and formally efficient, the movie is also
testosterone-driven, much like its most obvious predecessors, that
is, films by Tarantino, Scorsese, Bunuel. But it has something else
going on as well, a mix of wonder and dismay at such excesses.
Perhaps more importantly, it offers a welcome antidote to Hollywoody
visions of Mexico (Traffic, All the Pretty Horses, The
Mexican), revealing an urban Mexico that is neither sanitized
nor demonized: for all the death in it, this place feels utterly
immediate and alive.
Alejandro González Iñárritu
Gael Garcia Bernal
R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
parent or adult