Certain prints of Amores Perros, the Oscar-nominated Mexican film by first-time director Alejandro González IÃ±árritu, begin with a Humane Society declaration that no dogs were harmed in the film’s making. It’s standard boilerplate stuff—but most filmmakers and distributors put that warning at the bottom of the credits.
After five minutes, you’ll know why it’s done differently in Amores Perros. Part of this picture is set in the horrific world of illegal dog fighting. Sure, there are also plenty of humans getting shot and dismembered, but there’s no need for a similar Humane Society warning. The film’s violence is just another storytelling device in a nakedly adrenalized movie from a director who loves Tarantino and Peckinpah, but also has talent to burn.
The film’s title loosely translates to “Love’s a Bitch,” and it’s not joking. You’re more likely to find blood sizzling on a sushi grill than comedy in Amores Perros, which features three heavily braided plots and follows a large cast through its interactions before and after a car crash in downtown Mexico City.
But what it conspicuously lacks in humor, Amores Perros recovers in complexity, visual texture and old-fashioned panache. González IÃ±árritu, a debut filmmaker at 37, drops half a lifetime of wisdom and impatience into a film that joyously screams its stories at the viewer.
He hasn’t filmed a single character who’s fully sympathetic; every player has a secret or a shame. Each story also features large supporting roles played by canines. Even the opening shot is a twist on the opening of Reservoir Dogs: a speeding car with the driver’s bleeding friend lying on the back seat.
The friend is Cofi, a dog who seems to be a kind soul everywhere except the ring, where he’s a murderous champion. The driver is Octavio (Gael García Bernal), who propels the first segment of the story with his obsessive, improbable desire to create a new life for himself and Susana (Vanessa Bauche), the reluctant wife of Octavio’s borderline-crazy brother.
To make money, Octavio enrolls Cofi in the repulsive underground dogfights that prepare us for anything González IÃ±árritu can throw at us afterward. Though the fights are grisly and controversial, Amores Perros gets high marks for showing us something from every social stratum of Mexico, a country too often epitomized only by Tijuana’s wretched poverty.
There are plenty of trips to the barrio in the film’s 150 minutes. But amidst a pungently colored film that reeks of Latin American atmosphere in the same way Traffic did, we also glimpse the inner life of two rich and famous Mexicans in the film’s center segment. It concerns a model named Valeria (Goya Toledo), whose leg is mangled when Octavio crashes into her car at the end of that desperate flight with a wounded Cofi in the back seat.
Valeria’s plight seems to be a nod to Spanish director Luis BuÃ±uel, whose Mexican work was among his finest and whose Tristana featured Catherine Deneuve as a legless babe. Unfortunately, it’s also the dullest segment of the film, with Valeria and her older publishing-executive sugar daddy competing to see who can be more self-centered and tedious.
But González IÃ±árritu finishes strong with the story of El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría, marvelous again), a bearded, unkempt bag man who pops up occasionally in the film’s first 90 minutes. Once a normal family man who suddenly decided to become a revolutionary, El Chivo (The Goat) did 20 years in prison and has now become an emotionless killer for hire. He rescues Cofi from the wreckage of the car crash, but the unexpected consequences of this kind act force him to an epiphany about his life of violence.
Amores Perros isn’t quite weighty enough to support its length, and the center section stalls dreadfully. But the other two sections—as well as the unlikely beauty of the dirtiest streets of Mexico City—bear the mark of a natural, careful filmmaker who approaches his medium with the raw, enthusiastic flair we haven’t seen very much from Hollywood in the last five years. Amores Perros is exceptionally made, yet profoundly painful to watch. You may put your hand over your eyes, but you’ll be peeking between your fingers.
Amores Perros (R) HHH1/2 Directed by Alejandro González IÃ±árritu. Starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Emilio Echevarría and Vanessa Bauche.