Amores Perros (2000)

D: Alejandro González Iñárritu
S: Emilio Echevarría, Gael García Bernal

Attempting to discuss influence in postmodernism is like trying to extract a wave from a maelstrom. Amores Perros is a hyperkinetic portamento of interconnected narratives all of which are centrally concerned with the seedier side of life in modern Mexico. You can, if you wish, trace its lineage to Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, or you can go further back into the crime genre and the melodrama to find the roots of the individual tales. As a colleague of mine remarked, the second of the three tales, featuring the doomed romance between a model and a magazine editor is like something from an Antonioni film, only the master of Italian art house cinema would have done it in ten minutes. The first is a tale of dog fights and low-key gangsters not far from what Ritchie did in Snatch. The finale following the adventures of a hobo hit man has echoes of Le Samourai and other existential tales of outsiders looking in upon human foibles with a jaundiced eye. You can even approach the film from a surrealist perspective, tracing its blend of the outrageous and the realistic to the spectre of Luis Buñuel (Los Olvidados), whose Mexican period was his most fertile and challenging. Ultimately though, the strands of influence upon the aesthetic and narrative dimensions of the film are so numerous as to not bear close reference. It is a postmodernist pastiche, and as such any and all such references have less to do with deep meaning than they do with ephemeral affect.

The stories themselves are drawn from an experience of contemporary Mexico which the director and writer presumably considers representative, or at least authentic. As such the grainy photography featuring images of poverty, social deprivation, familial and religious claustrophobia are only as expected. Their ferocity and the energy with which they have been edited together is perhaps less so. The movie begins with an in-joke which references Reservoir Dogs (itself replete with reference to City on Fire and The Killing... the spiral goes ever on) as two young men ride screaming in a car with a bloodstained companion. In this case the companion is a dog, but the rapid camera movement, the sounds of screaming on the soundtrack, the gore, and the punch of starting with a violent car chase is pure sensationalism. This type of visual excitation goes on, but it does not quite cover up the basic generic nature of the stories. The pace changes but the imagery attempts to remain edgy and arty. The second story takes a more restrained approach, but it has unusual elements involving a dog hidden under the wooden flooring of an apartment which keeps you off balance. The third and final tale is also more measured, and because it involves a homeless character, provides the most sustained (and effective) look at the high and low life of the city seen through the filter of genre storytelling.

Amores Perros is a remarkable achievement. Its scale is impressive, running a good two and a half hours without running out of steam. It has been assembled with skill in craft and working on a budget considerably less weighty than many of its Hollywood equivalents, it was always bound to attract some level of admiration. But though the film deserves to be seen and has its points of interest, it is neither groundbreaking nor surprising in any respect other than the fact of where it has come from. Its social analysis has been surpassed many times, its pace and tone are bogstandard within postmodernism, its visceral entertainments are likewise unremarkable. Though they may be impossible to separate from the film on the whole, the strands of other movies have simply made this little more than an amalgam of clichés enlivened by an unfamiliar setting. For local audiences, this will probably rightly prove exciting, for international audiences it may represent a kind of sledgehammer with which to attack mainstream versions of the same thing, but in the end it boils down to less than the sum of its parts.

The movie actually improves as it goes. The first instalment is frequently juvenile and hysterical. The romantic sub plot is pure soap opera, a tale of lovers torn by tradition and a desperate attempt to get enough money to get out which depends upon its frequent bursts of explicit violence in the dog fights to hold attention at all. It is here of course that the somewhat heavy-handed symbolism of dogs begins to become obvious. Comparisons between the personalities and behaviours of men and canines are far from incidental, and the movie delights in throwing in as many images of the latter as possible to reinforce the point. The second instalment brings the title into semantic play as a beautiful woman becomes a 'bitch' as her love dies. There is some reasonable acting in this section, and there are some intense scenes of bitter confrontation which hit home. On the whole though, apart from the element of the dog under the floorboards, this is again familiar stuff with no real twist to it. The last part of the movie is the most engaging, built upon a strong, understated performance from Gustavo Muñoz, the hobo with a pack of dogs following him who has more purpose than many of the 'respectable' people who seem to 'hound' him. Though again predictable, the revelation of his backstory and scenes of emotional catharsis which deepen the characterisation are effective in this case, largely thanks to the quiet direction and Muñoz' acting.

Wildly overpraised in some quarters, Amores Perros is worth a look if you have a strong stomach and a taste for world cinema. It is not so exciting that it demands viewing, but it should prove worthwhile for cinephiles, film students, and fans of world cinema in general. Do not expect it to change the world though: postmodernism does not have that kind of power. All it can do is blur our conceptual and perceptual boundaries to a point where we either lose interest or lose hope.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.