Last week, when reviewing Guillermo Arriaga’s directorial debut, The Burning Plain, it made me yearn for his first produced script, 2000’s Amores Perros. It was with this film where Arriaga developed his patented non-linear storytelling with three unique stories branching off of one solitary event. Years before Crash won the Oscar taking a similar thought, Arriaga hit his freshman attempt out of the park with a little assist from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. A car crash is the moment which spiders into a triad of stories all involving love and at least one canine, as the title of the film translates to “Love’s a Bitch.” Indeed it is.
The first tale concerns the plight of Octavio and Susana. The two live under the same roof as Octavio’s mother along with his brother, Ramiro, and Susana’s infant child. Although she’s married to Ramiro, and the child is his, Octavio harbors feelings for his sister-in-law. Ramiro is abusive toward his wife, as well as anybody else who dares to cross his path. In order to convince Susana to run away with him, Octavio figures he only needs to provide Susana and her baby with the money Ramiro’s life of crime and working the register at a drug store fails to do. Octavio hatches a plan to enter his dog into the ring in a bout of underground dog fighting. Things don’t go according to plan and while rushing his dog to a hospital, Octavio runs a red light, smashing his car into another.
The car Octavio smashes into is driven by Valeria, a super model, whose lifeblood lies within her looks. Her leg is crushed in the accident, relegating her to a wheelchair and rending her lower limb useless. She’s cared for by her lover, Daniel, who has only recently left behind his wife and daughter for a more physically fulfilling relationship with Valeria. They live in a fixer-upper apartment together and while Daniel goes to work during the day, Valeria is confined to playing fetch with her dog. The dog falls down a hole in the floor and can’t be retrieved. Its loss drives Valeria crazy and forces a wedge between her and Daniel.
A witness to the car crash is El Chivo, who decides to take Octavio’s bloodied dog and nurse him to health. He is a reformed convict, now walking the streets with his band of broken dogs and push cart, scrapping for food. He left his daughter when she was only two, now a high school graduate. In a case of his past never being too far behind, El Chivo is granted an opportunity to do what he does best, assassinate unsuspecting victims for money. When he comes home to finds his beloved dogs, savagely torn apart by Octavio’s ruthless fighter, he views his duties in a different light, regardless of whether or not he was paid.
Arriaga is able to weave these three tales masterfully. Although each has a feel of being able to carry its own film, he wisely chooses to present the viewer with more bang for their buck. Each story manages to imprint themselves in the viewers’ minds and latches on for survival. They all have their strong points, but I’d argue the Octavio and Susana segment is the most intriguing, perhaps due to more action involved. It also presents the most hopeful situation, as opposed to an injured former model and a vagrant strolling through life. However, each works to hammer home Arriaga’s chosen theme of the difficulties presented by love.
Married perfectly to Arriaga’s script is Inarritu’s accelerated handheld visual style. Inarritu announces himself instantly with a tension-filled opening chase scene as Octavio and his friend rush to find help for their beloved fight dog, while tailed by a pair of gunmen. The direction of the Octavia and Susana segment of the film is rapid and in-your-face. In the post-Michael Vick era, the dog fight scenes are extremely brutal and gut-wrenching, especially because they’re real. No disclaimer about “no animals were harmed during the making of this film,” appears during the credits. Inarritu’s free-flowing camera creates a fly-on-the-wall documentary depiction of the lives, not just characters, contained within the film.
Gael Garcia Bernal gained fame in 2001’s Y Tu Mama Tambien, but this film brought him to the U.S. first. His Octavio is childish and certainly a dreamer, but Bernal carries a likeability with him, forcing the viewer to identify with his hare-brained schemes, because no matter how improbable they may be, we want him to succeed. Goya Toledo is the heart of the second segment, as Valeria, and we can feel her frustrations for a life crashing down around her, all at a stroke of pure chance. The car crash has rendered her useless to the world and Toledo portrays the broken dreams in a screaming fit, which may be difficult to take, but entirely understandable. Emilio Echavarria as El Chivo is disgusting. He’s has a scraggly beard, long dirty nails and a general uncleanliness to him. That we can watch him on screen at all is a testament to his characterization. He is not a sad-sack nomad, but someone who still has ambitions.
Amores Perros was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, losing out to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Not something to be ashamed about at all, but beneath the wire-fu of the winner, I believe this film to be the superior of the two. It’s a film of debuts. It almost single-handedly welcomed Mexican cinema into the U.S., later brining the aforementioned Y Tu Mama Tambien from Alfonso Cuaron and The Devil’s Backbone from Guillermo del Toro just one year later. Along with Inarritu, the trio of filmmakers hit their stride in 2006, with successful releases by each. However, without Amores Perros, the U.S. could be devoid of all three talents. Finally, once Guillermo Arriaga’s directing talent matches his way with words, there could be a fourth “amigo” added to the list.