Amores Perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000)


Gael Garcia Bernal (Octavio), Emilio Echevarria (El Chivo), Goya Toledo (Valeria), Alvara Guerrero (Daniel). Screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Rating: 18. Running time: 154 minutes.

Alejandro González Iñárritu. Don’t forget the name. He really is one of the most special of filmmakers. I cannot think of anyone currently making films who can compel me to empathise like he does, nor force me to think in a way that the content of his work necessitates. Amores Perros was his first effort, and it is undoubtedly the finest of his informal ‘Death Trilogy,’ however good both 21 Grams and Babel were that followed it. Here, in the concrete jungle that is Mexico’s darker side, both him and his camera feel truly at home, almost as if they belong on the backstreets and in all the dirt they bring, as well as the middle class we are raced through in the film’s middle.

The title is apparently a rare Spanish phrase that’s almost impossible to translate, but the closest they came to assigning an English name was to call it ‘Love’s a Bitch.’ That’s apt. Like in seemingly all of Iñárritu’s work, the emotions driving his characters aren’t self-evidently evil. The pain that is provoked here is often the product of good, or at least not clearly bad, intentions that just go wrong in practice. This is less the case than in Babel – that was a film we really had nobody to resent despite all the suffering that was caused. Amores Perros does, in contrast, give us villains of a kind, but not ones upon which we can comfortably and conclusively pin the blame.

The suffering is the result of the most basic of human emotions – jealousy, which if uncontrolled can wreak havoc for all. Living amongst men who force dogs to fight for entertainment and money, Octavio takes the opportunity to financially support the lover of his abusive brother. His activities spiral out of control, and eventually he’s put in a situation where he’s driving recklessly down a highway being chased by a gang, with his dog he has so carelessly treated shot and bleeding to death in the back. Iñárritu gives us this scene as an opener, and it’s left for a long time unexplained and largely forgotten. When it later reappears, it does so without forewarning and now part of a coherent narrative. But Iñárritu uses it only as a device through which our focus can be politely moved on. The car crash that transpires sees us say goodbye to Octavio and hello to its now wheelchair-stricken victim.

The mistreatment of dogs returns throughout, infecting all three strands of loosely interconnected story. In the second sequence, the woman Octavio put in a wheelchair is careless in her ball-playing with her pup, when a hole in the floorboards of her new flat means the dog tragically gets stuck down there. It’s very hard to explain just how upsetting this scenario is to watch, the dog finally being retrieved after days spent being half-bitten to death by rats. Combined with the earlier scenes of mauling that Octavio subjects his own dog too, for staunch animal lovers this could all get a bit too graphic.

Similarly dependent on (this time stray) dogs is the ragged squatter and hitman the film ends with. What is of note in this final strand, though, is the situation the man creates. When hired to kill the gay partner of a man – again through jealousy over an affair – he instead tricks the conspirator into facing his lover who is now in the knowledge of his plans. He leaves them tied up with a gun just out of reach, their destiny ready to unfold off the screen.

What’s Iñárritu trying to do and say here? Before trying to answer that, it must be emphasised just how moving and disturbing Amores Perros feels before any reflection on it even begins. It really does work just as a pure human and artistic experience, with the director’s passion somehow bursting through so clearly at the film’s seams.

Equally, though, as I earlier insisted, I think films like this demand further thought that we would be foolish to ignore. You cannot watch Amores Perros and walk away not asking what its purpose is, when despite its poignancy that justifies the film in itself, the additional depth of the events here and the richness of the characters cries for real consideration.

This is a new and special director developing a style and very quickly finding his feet, but it’s also undeniably a treatise on human nature. I’m reminded of the quote at the end of Babel, where in dedicating that film to his children Iñárritu describes them as the ‘brightest stars in the darkest night.’ Nobody can criticise him for not giving reasons for such a bleak assessment of the world, after watching events unfold as they do so movingly in Amores Perros.

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