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Amores Perros

This year’s birthday project begins courtesy of Oscar “TheMovieDude” Moreno, an amateur filmmaker whom I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with on a few occasions. I’ve no doubt that when he gets his due, Oscar will make a coming-of-age romantic drama so heartbreaking that all of America and Mexico will be moved to make their border a safer place. You can find some of his work here, but I especially recommend this one.

I looked forward to Oscar’s suggestions because I knew he’d direct me toward some brilliant Spanish-language masterpiece that might otherwise have passed me by. Sure enough, he recommended Amores Perros (roughly translated, it means “Love’s a bitch”).

The film starts out with a bang, as the credits plop us directly into the middle of a high-speed car chase. It’s hard to see much, except that a couple of guys have a bleeding dog in the backseat and they’re fleeing from a giant truck full of armed maniacs. Inevitably, things get out of control and there’s a car crash. This crash is the keystone of the entire film, as it provides the central intersecting point for three parallel storylines.

The first storyline concerns Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal), who was behind the wheel when we met him in that opening car chase. He’s living with his brother (Ramiro, played by Marco Perez) and his sister-in-law (Susana, played by Vanessa Bauche). Ramiro and Susana are also raising a baby together, I think that bears mentioning. Also of importance: Ramiro is an abusive husband who works as an armed robber and bangs another woman on the side. And of course, things get worse.

The two brothers have a dog, name of Cofi, who seems to be a perfectly calm and loyal pet. But then Cofi crosses paths with Mauricio (Gerardo Campbell) a rising star in the underground dogfighting circuit, and Cofi straight-up murders a champion fighting dog in self-defense. Mauricio comes around demanding compensation, which compounds the family’s monetary difficulties. So Octavio decides to put Cofi into the dogfighting circuit to make some extra money. Naturally, things don’t end there.

See, Octavio has fallen in love with his brother’s wife, which is a tricky and heartbreaking situation in itself. But Octavio is so determined to run away with Susana and her child that he’ll keep on dogfighting until he gets the money necessary to make it happen. Which means that poor Susana has to choose between her scumsucking criminal husband and his increasingly deranged criminal brother. Again, it’s a complicated situation that elicits sympathy.

In short, this is one of those stories that’s defiantly void of a sympathetic character. The sole exception is Susana, and her plight is compelling enough to earn some emotional investment and keep the story watchable. There’s also Octavio, who slowly starts to lose his humanity in a very well-developed arc. And lest we forget, we know exactly where Octavio’s actions will get him, which makes for some satisfying intrigue as we learn exactly how he got from Point A to Point B.

Speaking of “Point B,” the second storyline concerns the car that Octavio plowed into. This plotline begins with an upper-middle-class guy named Daniel (Alvaro Guerrero) who leaves his wife for a supermodel. Valeria (Goya Toledo) is at the peak of her career, she’s just moved into an apartment with her lover, everything seems to be coming up roses. Until Valeria (and her little dog too) gets put on the receiving end of a car accident.

Valeria’s leg is broken in several places, which would be crappy enough, but she’s also a model. She thrives on being a gorgeous woman whose entire flawless body is seen by the whole wide world. And here she is, stuck in an apartment while the world passes her by, wondering how badly the scars on her leg will heal. Even if her condition is only temporary, her chosen lifestyle moves at such a fast pace that every waking moment as a house-ridden cripple drives her insane. Mentally,  emotionally, and professionally, she just can’t handle it.

Even worse, Valeria’s precious dog — name of Richie — falls into a hole in the floorboards early on. And for whatever reason, Richie won’t come back out. This means several sleepless nights of jumping at every squeak, praying that it really is Richie and not the hundreds of rats that hopefully haven’t eaten the dog. Valeria and Daniel try everything getting Richie to come out, but nothing seems to work. Cue more loss of sanity and hope.

Of course, Daniel isn’t in a very good position either. Remember, he left his wife and children to be with Valeria, and he bought this wonderful apartment for himself and his girlfriend. He gave up everything for Valeria, just before she started turning into a nervous wreck. Sucks, doesn’t it?

Before moving on to the third storyline, let’s do some compare/contrast on the two we already have. One concerns a well-to-do couple with no criminal activity, and the other concerns a ghetto family getting rich off of dogfighting and store robberies. One story is about the rise and fall of its lead character while the other protagonist starts out on top and spends the entire running time in steep decline. Yet both protagonists are very proud and ambitious in their own ways, and they both suffer for it. Both storylines also have rocky love triangles centered around marital infidelity and a character’s mounting impatience with another character’s growing mental instability.

They also have a ton of common symbols, but I’ll get to those later when all three storylines are in play. For now, I’ll just say that Valeria’s storyline leans far more heavily on recurring symbols than Octavio’s story does. All throughout their story, Valeria and Daniel develop telephones as a symbol of communication between lovers, particularly in how one of them calls and hangs up without answering. It’s far more effective in execution than I could describe here. But of course, the big one is the billboard right across the street from Valeria’s apartment, featuring Valeria herself in a perfume ad. That billboard is a very prominent symbol of Valeria’s former beauty, and its development very superbly illustrates how her modeling career is slipping away to the point of no return.

Moving on, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that we have a storyline about the driver at fault and a storyline about the victim. That leaves only one more perspective to discuss: The bystander. There were many bystanders to witness the crash, of course, but we’re only interested in one particular witness.

Emilio Echevarria plays a character known as El Chivo. I’m loathe to discuss the character or his story in detail, since his inherent mystique is such a huge part of what makes him worth watching. Suffice to say that he’s a homeless man who makes a living as a high-priced assassin. And why not? Who could disappear into a crowd without arousing suspicion like some anonymous bum with too many dogs? Despite that, he does appear to be genuinely homeless, so what he does with all those thousands of pesos is anyone’s guess. Also, there are signs that he has an estranged daughter and a wife who dies early in the film. What happened there? Wouldn’t you like to know.

This character is intriguing because he’s very much the wild card of the big three. One main character is planted quite solidly in the ghetto while another spends pretty much all of her screentime in a penthouse suite, but as a homeless man employed by the rich and famous, El Chivo has a foot in each world. For this reason, the impartial observer of the car crash is also the impartial observer of the film as a whole. He’s the moral arbiter who passes judgment on both sides.

Also, Octavio and Valeria both have clearly-defined arcs with established motivations, but El Chivo has neither. Right up until the climax, it’s not entirely clear what his endgame is or even if his goals have changed somewhere along the way. Moreover, it’s obvious that he’s by far the smartest character in this cast. Octavio and Valeria weren’t clever enough to find a way out of their predicaments, but El Chivo quite clearly is. Couple that with a character who has every means and motivation to commit cold-blooded murder, and who wouldn’t want to find out what happens?

Of course, El Chivo’s story has a few common threads with the other two. They all deal with turbulent love, dangerous ambition, and so on. But really, the major common factor is dogs. All three main characters have canine companions, and dogs play a crucial role in all three stories. They’re presented as creatures of purity, void of culpability because they only do what humans have made them do. Unlike humans (especially these particular humans), dogs have no agendas, prejudices, or need for much of anything except love. That said, dogs are equally capable of violence and affection, just like every human character is a hapless lover who commits acts of violence (sure, Daniel and Valeria only assault some floorboards, but still).

On a technical level, the film is staggering. This was the picture that put Alejandro G. Inarritu on the map, and quite deservedly so. From the dank and gritty alleyways to the bright and sterile apartment suites, the visuals and sound designs are wonderfully atmospheric. I particularly love how Inarritu presents the grungier scenes in a way that feels grimy and dark, yet the shots all look different and clearly lit.

What’s even more impressive is that Inarritu presents scenes of gut-churning violence between dogs, but he does it in a way that doesn’t involve any actual harm to the animals. Through masterfully clever editing, sound design, and effects work, Inarritu makes the dogfighting scenes appear far more bloody and brutal than they really are. You really have to look close to see it, but the live animals used on set are perfectly fine.

Finally, I feel sort of obligated to compare this to another film with parallel storylines that heavily involved cars. I refer of course to Crash, the film that fluked its way to a Best Picture win five years after Amores Perros. How did that movie fail where this movie succeeded? Well, first of all, Inarritu is a far superior director than Paul Haggis could ever be. Second, the characters in Amores Perros are much deeper and more compelling than the cartoon stereotypes that populated Crash (though to be fair, Octavio’s storyline has quite a few two-dimensionally evil gangster characters).

But perhaps most importantly, Crash bit off more than it could chew while Perros didn’t. Maybe if Crash had tried a managable three storylines instead of a clumsy half-dozen, it might have gone better. Also, the plot of Perros only hinges on one crucial meeting between the storylines, which is far less confusing and contrived than the multiple crossovers that happened in Crash. Last but not least, Crash was far too preachy. It could only talk about racism, hammering the same point home over and over again in pitifully uncreative terms. Compare that to Amores, which explored a wide variety of more interesting themes by way of more compelling characters and interesting stories.

Amores Perros is a fine movie. The storytelling is novel, the symbolism is very clever, and the main characters are compelling to watch. Of course, the talented cast and Alejandro Inarritu’s superb direction help a lot as well. Aside from a few stereotypically evil gangsters in the first third, I don’t see anything here that wouldn’t appeal to those in search of solid intellectual cinema. Definitely check it out.

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