Not long ago we tried to convince an acquaintance–a genteel Mexico City woman with a high-ranking job at a government financial institution–to see Amores Perros (Love’s a Bitch). The first feature-length film by 37-year-old director Alejandro González Iñárritu has received enthusiastic reviews, won awards at Cannes, was nominated for a Golden Globe, and is the first Mexican film to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in more than 25 years. Nevertheless, our friend was not interested: “Why should I see poverty and squalor, when I go to the movies to have fun,” she responded.
Pues, sí. But it is precisely the film’s unrelenting depiction of poverty and the nature of that poverty, that makes it a must-see. Unlike the 1985 film Los Motivos de Luz (Luz’s Reasons) by Felipe Cazals, about a woman who kills her children because she can’t support them, or Luis Buñuel’s classic 1950 film, Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones), González Iñárritu does not focus on those living in “extreme poverty”–the corrugated metal-roofed shacks precariously perched on hillsides around the great metropolis or skeletal Indian village communities where it’s hard to find a handful of beans or “an aspirin,” to borrow a phrase from Subcomandante Marcos. Instead, he sets his sights on the material and emotional pauperism that plagues inhabitants of mega-cities from Mexico City to London to Los Angeles and portrays a savagery based on human (and animal) nature rather than the actions of corrupt public officials.
The screenplay by González Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga (who has taught screenwriting at several Mexican universities) connects three seemingly unrelated stories and characters brought together by a car accident. The film does not follow a linear structure; events play over and over from the points of view of different characters. Although the quality of the three stories varies considerably, overall the strength of the screenplay is enough to bring Amores Perros up a notch when compared to other recent Mexican films such as Santitos, based on the novel by María Amparo Escandón, or Sexo, pudor y lagrimas (Sex, shame and tears) a pseudo-hip take on relationship angst in upper-middle-class Mexico City that was well-received by audiences here. Artistically it is much more significant than La Ley de Herodes, a spoof on the political regime that ruled Mexico for decades, and which attracted a great deal of press interest because of the government’s clumsy attempts at censorship.
Amores Perros opens with the most superbly shot car chase and crash in Mexican cinematic history. The first narrative–the most distressing, as well as the most dramatically compelling–is a small gem of real-life authenticity, without a hint of tired and trite “docu-drama.” It is the story of Octavio and his elder brother Ramiro, a lout who has taken to holding up drugstores. They all live together in a small house in one of Mexico City’s countless nondescript, barren lower-class neighborhoods, along with their mother, Ramiro’s teen-aged wife and baby, and a huge black Rottweiler that belongs to the two brothers. Dogs are ever-present in the film, a reflection on their masters, and González Iñárritu’s metaphor for life and love.
When the story begins, Octavio is already in love with his sister-in-law, Susana. He is obsessed by her and cannot help listening to the sounds of sexual activity going on in the room next to him. Nor can he escape from the verbal abuse which Ramiro inflicts on her. Through a “lucky” event Octavio finds out that his dog is good at dog-fights, which are illegal in Mexico but apparently thriving. His rivalry with Ramiro plays out in brutal fights between the Rottweiler and a series of canine opponents. For anyone who knows Mexico City, Octavio’s punk friends in the barrio and his drug-dealer brother ring true. “We kid you not,” González Iñárritu and Arriaga seem to be saying, “This is for real, and it’s happening right now, a few blocks from where you live”–part of the film’s immense appeal among adolescents and young adults in Mexico.
The “second” narrative is also a doomed love story, borrowing from the world of modeling and advertising. Valeria is a flashy, neurotic model, Daniel a middle-aged magazine editor who abandons his wife and children. Valeria, in a cast, moves to Daniel’s new apartment and Fifi, her dog, falls through the wooden floor and is trapped underneath, where the sounds of big rats prevail. This is the weakest part of the movie. The acting is empty and González Iñárritu simply asks too much of viewers in terms of willful suspension of disbelief.
Finally, there is the story of El Chivo (“The Goat”), a teacher-turned-leftist guerrilla-turned-aging-street-bum-and-ruthless-paid-assassin. El Chivo, superbly portrayed by Emilio Echevarría, navigates Mexico City’s urban sprawl with a nasty pack of hounds, but finds redemption when, in a weird plot twist, he meets up with Octavio’s Rottweiler. The love story here has to do with El Chivo’s final push to renew ties with his estranged daughter—the only note of hope sounded by Amores Perros.
González Iñárritu was in his early ’20s when he began his career in radio. It was the 1980s, and media monster Televisa entrusted him and a friend with creating a radio station to compete with “Rock 101,” a powerhouse music station that combined Mexican rock with salsa and jazz and was enormously popular in Mexico City. For several years he was a successful radio producer and DJ before moving first to television and then to film as music advisor. Ten years ago he founded his own movie and television company, Zeta Films, and produced several shorts as well as television advertising. By then he had also become vice president of “corporate image” at Televisa. After studying with a prestigious Mexican theater director and a brief training stint in Hollywood, he directed Detrás del dinero (Behind the Money), a television short co-produced with Spain and starring the Spanish singer and actor Miguel Bosé.
With Amores Perros, González Iñárritu put his advertising and television background to use, beginning with the slick media campaign developed to promote the film in Mexico. He was particularly successful in Mexico City, where he used billboards displaying the various characters darkly silhouetted against the same orange and green tones used throughout the film to create a hypnotic effect–particularly when freshly shed blood is involved. He also put his radio days to good advantage and delivered a soundtrack that combines the reigning queen of salsa, Celia Cruz, with the Mexican-style hip hop of Control Machete, the rock and techno music of Ilya Kuriaki and Mexican rock diva Julieta Venegas.
Throughout Amores Perros, González Iñárritu plays with the subject of television violence and its influence on real life, juxtaposing honeyed small-screen images with the sordid “real-life” stories. In a self-congratulatory mode he also incorporates his television shorts. Occasionally, however, his radio and advertising background gets in the way; the pacing of the film is far too choppy. Moreover, the quality of the acting varies considerably. There are several superfine scenes such as the confrontation of two rich businessmen brothers who loathe each other. One of them hires El Chivo to kill the other. But the schoolteacher-guerilla-assassin is now on the road to redemption and cannot find it in himself to carry out the assignment. As El Chivo, Echevarría is outstanding; the relatively unknown actors who play Octavio, Ramiro, and Susana (especially Gael García as Octavio), also deliver fine performances. But because of the excessive length of the film (153 minutes), by the time we get to the end,their acting seems strained—too much of a good thing.
Moreover, as the film progresses, González Iñárritu becomes overly enamored with the canine analogy that serves as leitmotif for sheer brutality. That analogy has created major problems for the director and Lions Gate Films, the distributor. Both were obviously aware that the vicious dogfight scenes would spark controversy. In contrast to conventional practice —announcing at the conclusion of the film that no animal was killed or harmed during production—in Amores Perros the announcement is made upfront at the beginning. But the scenes are so intensely violent that animal rights groups have fiercely opposed the film, which may diminish its chance for an Oscar, which is somewhat ironic given the multiple nominations for Gladiator, a murderous orgy of hacking and limb-severing among human beings, and an enormous success in Mexico City and throughout the world.
It may be that Amores Perros was never a true Oscar contender, given the publicity generated by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a box-office hit in the United States. (Amores Perros, which was featured earlier this month at Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festival, does not open nationwide in the United States until April 13.) Nevertheless, González Iñárritu and his debut film have already made their mark in Mexico. Mexican film critics have been talking about “new Mexican cinema” by daring young neophyte directors for the past 10 years and the phrase has become a cliché. But Amores Perros breaks with the “new” conventions of “new Mexican cinema” and gives potential viewers–including our genteel Mexico City friend–much to think about.
Angela Moscarella is a Mexico City journalist. With a grant from the New York State Council for the Arts she directed a video documentary about leftist Mexican artists and writers in the 1930s and 1940s called Frente a Frente.
Javier Ramírez is an editor with the prize-winning Mexican television documentary series Mexico Nuevo Siglo.