Amores Perros (2000)

Alejandro Iñárritu | 2hr 34min

Amores Perros opens in media res with a car speeding through the streets of Mexico, a wounded dog bleeding to death in the backseat, and a yellow truck right on its tail. At this point in time, we know nothing about the men in the front seat, Octavio and Jorge – who they are, where they have come from, or where they are going. And then all of a sudden, just as we get our bearings in this frenzied chase, there is glass shattering, metal splintering, and smoke filling the air.

The places that Alejandro Iñárritu takes his debut film from here goes far beyond the immediate questions we might have about this car accident. Its effects spread out to strangers from across class boundaries, and bit by bit a landscape of violence, disloyalty, and abuse begins to form in this urban ecosystem of decay and moral depravity.

The same car crash from three different perspectives, a literal collision of narrative threads creating a formal masterwork.

Though it is structured around three separate narrative threads, Amores Perros is not as rigidly segmented as one might initially assume. Iñárritu certainly makes good use of titles bearing the names of his characters to open new chapters where our focus dramatically shifts, but bits and pieces of each plotline also obtrusively bleed into the others. In the first, “Octavio y Susana” which follows an affair between a man and his sister-in-law, it is not immediately clear who the haggard, bearded man is that pursues and kills a stranger without hesitation, nor do we understand why Iñárritu keeps cutting to Daniel, a magazine publisher cheating on his wife with a supermodel. In time, the justification for the inclusion of both will be revealed in their own chapters, within which Octavio and Susana will appear in reduced capacity. But for now these two subplots remain unsolved mysteries, running beneath a more dominant narrative set in a working-class neighbourhood and an underground dog fighting ring.

A superb blocking of faces in this conversation between Octavio and Susana.

When it comes to those depictions of animal abuse, Amores Perros proves itself to be a particularly confronting experience. Sure, there is a lot of vicious imagery to flinch at all across the board, especially in one shot where Iñárritu’s camera closes in tightly on a splash of fresh blood aggressively sizzling across an open grill. But the torture which is continuously inflicted upon dogs through all two and a half hours of its run time is truly testing, and much of the moral substance of these characters can be gaged by who we see inflicting it, who is trying to fight it, and who can do nothing but simply empathise with their pain.

A sizzling trickle of blood dripping down a grill, fresh from a murder.

In Octavio’s decision to let his dog, Cofi, fight another, Daniel’s choice to leave Valeria’s dog trapped beneath the floorboards, and her selfless attempts to rescue it, we witness this running metaphor become the source of some brilliant character work. Especially when considering canines not just as representations of innocence, but also as symbols of loyalty, a broader picture begins to form of a city that places such little value in any of these, with affairs and betrayals running rampant in virtually every relationship.

In reflecting this urban hellhole, the grittiness of Iñárritu’s rapid-fire editing and grainy visual style feels almost entirely inverse to those films from later in his career, Birdman and The Revenant. Both those movies flow smoothly in long takes even as they wrestle with similarly existential questions and, in the case of The Revenant, viscerally violent imagery. The masterclass of filmmaking in Amores Perros is of an entirely different kind though, in which he presents us with an environment of utter chaos, and then dedicates himself to sorting through the madness to find some sense in it. A skilful balance and wide scope is achieved not just in editing between each of the three main storylines, but even in the skilful parallel cutting contained within these individual strands, contrasting Octavio and Susana’s affair with the one her husband, Ramiro, is simultaneously conducting with a co-worker.

We occasionally get these beautiful formal cutaways to the city streets at night, the headlights of cars bouncing off the wet tarmac. A reminder of the physical landscape these characters inhabit.

Through these constant juxtapositions between plot threads, Iñárritu constructs a pattern of deterioration brought about by selfishness and cruelty, which continues to reverberate outwards. Even Valeria, one of our most noble characters, is not immune to this, as her efforts to counteract Daniel’s malice simply worsens her condition, right up until she hits rock bottom with a leg amputation, cutting short her illustrious modelling career. In poignant correspondence, her perfume ads stuck up high on billboards around the city are similarly torn down, her fall from grace writ large in this wretched environment.

And then as Amores Perros reaches its finale act, “El Chivo y Maru”, there is an unexpected shift in Iñárritu’s pattern in the place we least expect. Where Octavio and Valeria are involved in the car crash out of pure bad luck, hitman El Chivo is simply a witness, and chooses to involve himself in rescuing Cofi from the wreckage. The bond that forms between the two is unlike any other human-pet relationship we have seen yet. Like El Chivo, Cofi has been trained to kill, though it is not in his nature – it is a learned instinct as a result of an environment that has told him it is the only way to survive.

A wonderful recurring use of mirrors in the mise-en-scène.

From the great sorrow that El Chivo feels for this corrupted creature there emerges an indignant anger, but also a huge amount of remorse. Unlike Valeria, his deliberate reaction against the decay of the world is not directed outwards in attempts to fix it, but rather inwards to his soul, so that he may fix that which is broken in his own life. After all, it is from there that we have seen reverberations ripple outwards, dictating the paths of lives beyond these characters’ immediate understandings. And with just one extra force of goodness out there in this city, Iñárritu pensively leaves us with some shred of hope for its future.

An ending like Casablanca or Modern Times, only with a man and man’s best friend walking off into the distance, offering a shred of hope.

Amores Perros is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Video.

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