It's nearly impossible to discuss the Mexican export "Amores Perros" without some animal reference rearing its furry head. Not only has the film set tongues fluttering via its bloody portrayal of the vicious "sport" of dogfighting, but its hopes of winning last year's Oscar as Best Foreign-Language Film were held at bay by a certain tiger/dragon team.
And let's not forget those reservoir dogs. In his first full-length feature, director Alejandro González Iárritu employs the nonlinear style of filmmaking popularized by Quentin Tarantino. The script he's chosen to interpret (from the pen of novelist Guillermo Arriaga) is a trio of south-of-the-border morality plays whose protagonists are linked by the same fateful car crash. Characters make cameo appearances in each other's tales, and the action rewinds to suit the storytelling needs of the moment. But if the plaudit "a Mexican Pulp Fiction sounds passé, take heart: "Amores Perros" equals -- and in some respects tops -- its sources.
Its title is loosely translated as "love's a bitch," and that intersection of human and animal passions informs the film's three stories. In the first, a lovestruck teen-ager named Octavio (Gael García Bernal) pursues an illicit affair with his sister-in-law, Susana (Vanessa Bauche). To fund their escape from Mexico City -- and from Susana's abusive husband, Ramiro (Marco Peréz) -- Octavio enters the dogfighting underworld, turning the family pet into a surprisingly adept, highly profitable murdering machine.
The post-fight close-ups of broken, dead pooches are bracing shocks to the system. But a careful look at the actual ringside sequences reveals significant restraint on Iñárritu's part. Set free from their masters' clutches, the snarling dogs meet each other in a deadly embrace ... and then the action quickly shifts elsewhere, before the dramatically valid horror can degenerate into sensationalism.
The second story concerns Valeria (Goya Toledo), a supermodel engaged in a clandestine romance with a married publishing executive, Daniel (Alvaro Guerrero). Valeria's career is threatened by a serious injury, and her mood turns jet-black after her dog is trapped beneath the floorboards of her apartment. In this segment -- the most static of the three, but the richest in symbolism -- the search for the lost pet signifies the guilt that underlies the lovers' uneasy bond.
The film's narrative and ideological threads are tied together in the third tale, in which a former guerrilla soldier now working as a hitman-for-hire mulls an overdue re-entry into the human race. It's a triumph for Mexican stage and screen veteran Emilio Echevarría, whose nuanced portrayal of a feared but conflicted criminal is the film's late-arriving heart and soul.
"Amores Perros" falls short of perfection, due in part to a few plot details that don't hold up to scrutiny. (Octavio's champion canine, Cofi, comes through 15 fights with nary a scratch on him.) And the occasional juxtaposition of human copulation and dog-on-dog violence makes for a pretty sophomoric metaphor.
Otherwise, the movie's perception is on target. Iñárritu and Arriaga are more aware of economic "realpolitik" than Tarantino: Octavio is emboldened to challenge his brother's authority (and marriage) when his ill-gotten wealth suddenly makes him the family breadwinner. But the picture's true moral weight is felt when Echevarría's assassin adopts a four-legged veteran of the dogfights. Though trained to wreak havoc, they're not natural born killers ... just two old dogs who need to relearn the forgotten trick of compassion. It's a trick this bracing yet sensitive film knows by heart.