LOVE. BETRAYAL. DEATH.
Remember what Huey Lewis said about love? “It’s strong and it’s sudden and it can be cruel sometimes.” Well, Alejandro González Iñárritu would certainly seem to agree with that last bit. For his first feature film, Iñárritu would consider the stories of several different people, told along three interconnected storylines, and look at just how cruel love can be, particularly when some of those involved seem to be completely ignorant of how cruel they are actually being. Surely it works out that for one person to find happiness, another must find sadness and misery. How cruel can you really be to someone or something that you profess to love, and for what reasons would you really do that? That’s some pretty messed up power that love’s got, Huey.
The lives of three disparate individuals, each from a different social stance in society, become interconnected by a horrific car accident. Octavio (Gael García Bernal) wants to raise enough money so he can run away with his sister-in-law, and decides to enter his dog into dogfighting contests. After a fight goes bad, Octavio flees in his car, causing an accident in the process. Valeria (Goya Toledo)’s career as a model is destroyed when the accident costs her dearly. El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría) is a homeless man who cares for stray dogs and witnesses the collision.
The translation of this film’s title, Amores Perros, is ‘love’s a bitch’. For the characters in this world, it really is. The idea that love is a transcendent drive in a person, making them do bold and crazy things for the one they love, is a pretty common thing in films, particularly the aspirational fare of Hollywood. However, in this film, we look at the bad things people will do for those the supposedly love. Octavio is in love with Susana, the young wife of his brother, Ramiro. Susana already has a child by Ramiro, which is why they got married in the first place, and soon finds out that she’s pregnant again. Susana is also still in school, so relies on Ramiro and Octavio’s mother for help in raising her child. It’s clear that Susana does not get along with her mother-in-law, who rather looks down on Susana for ending up in this situation in the first place. Ramiro himself is also a rather nasty piece of work, an abusive philanderer and an armed robber. Susana can’t even rely on her own mother because she’s a drunk. The only person she can rely on, and has any kind of positive relationship with that we can see, is Octavio. The only times the either one of them seem to smile is when it’s at each other. It’s clear that Octavio likes Susana, and not just because he tells her. The question is whether or not Susana likes Octavio back. When he asks her to run away with him, she seems understandably hesitant. What about Ramiro? Where would they go? Neither of them have any money with which to do so. Octavio has a plan…
Daniel is a man with a family, wife and two young daughters. They seem happy. However, they do occasionally get phone calls from someone who hangs up when anyone answers. Well, not anyone. If Daniel answers, they stay on. We hear from one phone call that he has a mistress – Valeria. Valeria is a model, beautiful and successful, having just become the new spokesperson for a big fashion company’s ad campaign. On television shows and the like, she’s dating a famous actor, but really she’s with Daniel. After one show, Valeria is surprised with a new apartment, which she shall be sharing with Daniel, who tells her that he has now separated from his wife. The apartment could use a little work (a big hole breaks in the floorboards shortly after Valeria enters), but it’s okay because now they are together. Things are really looking up for the couple when Valeria is broadsided in a car wreck. Seriously injured, Valeria is confined to a wheelchair for a while, unable to work and in a declining physical condition, and the tension quickly begins to have a detrimental effect her relationship with Daniel, who is quietly becoming convinced of his mistake in leaving his family.
El Chivo is a homeless man who wanders the streets of Mexico City, where all of our action takes place. From our first viewing of the man, brandishing a machete, he is clearly quite dangerous. Such a view is cemented when we see him shoot a man through a restaurant window. It turns out that this is how he survives, as a killer for hire. We then watch him on two endeavours: he his hired by a business man to kill his partner; and he starts to follow a young woman that we first see at a funeral. We see El Chivo several times throughout the film before we even arrive at his story, but details are always light. We are furnished with more information about his past later on, but he remains, for the most part, a figure of some mystery.
Aside from the bone-shattering car crash we see at the film’s opening (and three more times as the film progresses), there is something else that connects our characters that I have not mentioned – they all have dogs. Indeed, how they treat their dogs tells you a lot about the characters, since the dogs are the most loving creatures in the film. Indeed, what can a dog do but love its master? Octavio’s plan to get money for himself and Susana is to enter his dog Cofi (technically his brother’s dog) into the world of dogfighting, a world in which Cofi becomes very successful. This is where some of the more difficult to watch aspects of the film come in. Indeed, it should say a lot that, like Address Unknown, the film actually opens with the disclaimer that normally comes at the end of the credits, stating that no animals were harmed in the making of this film. These contests aren’t exactly shown in as damning a light as many would like. Now, they never shy away from the aggressive, violent and bloody nature of such events, but Octavio certainly holds no moral pains in winning so much money from such cruelty. No one does. Valeria’s dog, Richie, is never near such horrors, but does suffer somewhat, too. When Valerie is recuperating in her new apartment, Richie chases a ball down the hole in the floor that Daniel doesn’t have the money to fix. The dog becomes lost down there for days, whimpering and scratching and being occasionally utterly silent, at the mercy of the darkness and the rats. Valeria wants him back, but Daniel wants her to rest, saying that Richie will be fine and he’ll come out when he’s ready. The longer Richie stays lost, the more frantic and desperate Valeria becomes. El Chivo is a keeper of several dogs, taking in one more when he finds the severely injured body of Cofi by the roadside after the car crash. Taking him and nursing him back to health, El Chivo is horrified and heartbroken when he comes back one day to see that the behaviour that has been drilled into Cofi has reared up again and been taken out on his other dogs. The dogs themselves essentially becomes direct reflections of each character by film’s end, but I’ll let you see how for yourself if you watch it.
Ultimately, this is what really comes across Amores Perros – love is a weakness, and weakness in a harsh place can get you killed. Octavio’s weakness for Susana brings him into direct conflict with Ramiro, as well as some other owners in the dogfighting circles, which costs him dearly. Valeria comes to question her love for Daniel, and his love for her, as she slowly begins to suspect him of having an eye on the door. After all, it’s not such a crazy notion to think he may be looking elsewhere since that’s exactly how they got together. El Chivo, whom you would almost think is beyond weakness, is hurt deeply when he takes in a dog that has been turned vicious by its previous owner. Consider the city in which the film is set – Mexico City. By the film’s telling, it’s a city of brutality, crime, mistrust, violence… of course weakness could kill you in a place like the one this film shows you. Hell, look back up at the film’s tagline – Love. Betrayal. Death. You get the feeling that there really should be an equals sign between each word.
Although, it is a very bleak and unsettling film, it’s some incredibly brave and vibrant filmmaking. It’s bold, ballsy, raw, shot through with ambition and held together with real power and dexterity. The scope is superb, making three stories feel so layered and rich. The acting is flawless, too. It may be a tough watch, but it’s worth it just for the sheer capability on show.
Amores Perros is a harsh film, sad, brutal and rather cynical, too. Plus, at two-and-a-half hours, it is a bit longer than some people will really be willing to give it. That said, it is also an excellent film, with involving stories and characters and a firm sense of direction from Iñárritu. I will say that, much like Address Unknown, if you’re particularly squeamish about violence to dogs (or any animal, really), you may wish to think twice before sitting down to this one. If you are willing to take it on, though, it is a worthy watch.