Amores Perros (Mexico, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Without a doubt, the majority of the reviews of Amores Perros, the acclaimed debut feature from Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, will, at one time or another, invoke Pulp Fiction. There are undeniable similarities, although most of them are at the surface level. Amores Perros, like Quentin Tarantino's Oscar-nominated opus, deals with men and women who live on the seedy side of life. The plot unravels episodically and in a non-linear fashion, with characters from one segment occasionally appearing in, or passing through, another. However, one of Pulp Fiction's trademarks was to glamorize the gangster - to make the traditional "bad guy" seem hip and interesting. This was done through clever dialogue and stylish filmmaking techniques. In Amores Perros, criminals are not romanticized. They are exposed for what they are - human beings whose moral compasses have become twisted. So, although the territory may be familiar to viewers of Pulp Fiction, the vantage point is radically different.

Amores Perros introduces us to a veritable Rogues Gallery of individuals. Of the seven or eight significant characters traversing Iñárritu's terrain, only one could be considered sympathetic. The others comprise a web of corruption and deceit. There are hit men, murderers, philanderers, thieves, betrayers, and other assorted riff-raff. Tarantino's anti-heroes are cool and suave, with always the right one-liner to offer. Iñárritu's are brutal and lacking even a modicum of charisma.

The first two we meet are Octavio (Gael García Bernal) and Susana (Vanessa Bauche). She's his sister-in-law, but that doesn't stem his ardor for her, and, because he treats her with a degree of kindness that her brutish husband, Ramiro (Marco Pérez), never shows, she can't help but be attracted to him. Octavio is determined to make enough money so that he and Susana can run away together (along with her infant son), but, in Mexico City, where poverty abounds, clean money is hard to find. Ramiro's meager income as a grocery store clerk is supplemented by convenience store hold ups, but that's not a path Octavio is interested in taking. Instead, he decides to get involved in dog fighting, and he's fortunate to own a real winner. But, once Ramiro finds out about his little brother's windfall, he wants a piece of the action, and all of Octavio's carefully laid plans are put in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, a couple of rungs higher on the social ladder are Daniel (Álvaro Guerrero) and Valeria (Goya Toledo). She's a world-class model who has hit the big time. Her face and body are plastered all over billboards throughout Mexico City. He's a magazine publisher who has left his wife and two children to be with her. Together, they make the perfect couple - young, good-looking, and in love - until tragedy strikes. Valeria is seriously injured in a car accident and Daniel must cope with living with a mentally and physically crippled woman whose modeling career is at an end. Suddenly, the rosy life he envisioned reeks of decay.

Finally, there's Chivo (Emilio Echevarría), a mysterious, wild-looking figure who hovers around the periphery of the other stories until his tale is finally told. Chivo is an ex-guerilla who abandoned his wife and daughter for The Cause. Now, many years later, he lives with regrets. He spies on his adult child from afar, never having the courage to approach her, while he takes odd jobs as a hit man to feed himself and his small menagerie of mangy dogs. But, when Chivo is hired by one brother to kill another over money, he arrives at a few realizations about the importance of family.

The dogs in this film are almost as important as the humans. Canines feature prominently in all three stories. Octavio makes his fortune by fighting dogs. Valerie loves her pooch more than a child (and, one might argue, more than Daniel). And Chivo treats his animals with greater respect than he accords to any human. By elevating dogs to this level of importance, Iñárritu is making a statement about the level to which society has descended. It's a sad commentary about a culture where individuals care more about dogs than other human beings.

Amores Perros' timeline is not linear. It curves back on itself, but not in a manner that is intended to confound the audience. The film begins with an pivotal occurrence that happens half-way through the movie, then proceeds to show events that lead up to that moment, and, later, what happens afterwards. Chivo's story plays out in the background for most of the film, until, during the final forty-five minutes, it is brought to the fore while the other tales are wrapped up on the periphery. Iñárritu's approach isn't unique, but it is unusual, and it's one of the elements that will keep viewers involved in Amores Perros from beginning to end.

Iñárritu has surrounded himself with a strong cast. Veteran Emilio Echevarría is magnetic as Chivo, with blazing eyes staring out from beneath bushy eyebrows. They are the eyes of a fanatic, but there's also a sense of almost unspeakable loss in them as they gaze in the direction of his daughter. Álvaro Guerrero brings a youthful energy to the part of Octavio, and Goya Toledo is suitably fragile and spoiled as the model who is used to having the world bow down in front of her. In fact, there isn't a weak performance to be found throughout the movie; even the trained dogs do solid jobs.

Amores Perros has won an impressive number of awards in film festivals across the globe. Watching the film, it's not hard to understand why. Iñárritu's style contains elements of Tarantino, Peckinpah, and others, but, ultimately, the synthesis is all his own. Even though there's really no one in this film we can like, root for, or sympathize with, the intricacies of the narrative and the its themes are strong enough to ensure that we will not lose interest. Amores Perros is more than just a strong debut; it's good, gritty filmmaking.

Amores Perros (Mexico, 2000)

Run Time: 2:31
U.S. Release Date: 2001-04-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: English subtitled Spanish
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1