Tales of La Ciudad

In the startling new Mexican movie Amores Perros, one character ruefully offers up the aphorism “To make God laugh, tell him your plans.” The God who looks down on the expeditious people in this movie must be bellowing. The 37-year-old director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, is a TV-commercial producer and former D.J. for a popular Mexico City radio station who is making his feature-film debut. Already he seems to know exactly how to bring the boilings of life to the screen. The human dramas being played out seem elemental in an almost biblical sense, and yet they also have a hair-trigger immediacy. It’s a truly prodigious piece of work, resembling a career summation far more than a maiden voyage. (It has that kind of comprehensiveness and reach.) Along with his screenwriter, the novelist Guillermo Arriaga, and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Gonzalez Inarritu brings you so far inside the maelstrom of Mexico City that the city itself becomes a seething central character and the source of a million miseries. The passion of those miseries gives the film its horrible grandeur.

What’s so liberating about Amores Perros (translated roughly as Love Is a Bitch) is the realization that so much of this culture is being mined for the first time in the movies. Mexico has produced some extraordinary film artists in the past decade, but Gonzalez Inarritu is, to my knowledge, the first to really break out into the streets and attempt an epic vision. Until fairly recently, the Mexican film industry was inhospitable to this kind of daring; its countless rich and indigenous sources of drama could exist only in debased form as telenovelas and cheap Hollywood knockoffs. Luis Bunuel, of course, made some of his greatest movies in Mexico back in the fifties, but he made them on the sly: masterpieces posing as potboilers. Amores Perros is, among other things, an homage to the Bunuel who made Los Olvidados and stirred up from the streets Mexico’s full garish pitilessness. No one thinks of Los Olvidados as a piece of social reformism, despite the fact that it is about juvenile delinquency, and Amores Perros would never be misconstrued in that way, either. If there is a reformist spirit to it, it exists on a more spiritual plane: The film is about the inescapable consequences of violence to one’s body and one’s soul.

It’s structured as a time-shifting triptych of overlapping dramas, and the effect is dizzying, as if reality were so multifarious that it could accommodate any structure we impose on it. The movie opens with a furious car chase and crash serving as the focal point for the three narratives that follow. The first section is the film’s most alarming, because it features dog-fighting in full-throttle close-up (the producers insist none of the animals was harmed). Octavio (Gael García Bernal), in love with his sister-in-law Susana (Vanessa Bauche), uses the family Rottweiler to rack up a series of brutal, lucrative victories. He wants to use the money to lure Susana away from his thuggish brother (Marco Peréz), and she seems uneasily receptive to the idea. (They all live under the same roof in a squalid intimacy.) Away from the fighting pit, the savage black dog is docile; it is Octavio who is perpetually vehement. He idealizes Susana as his salvation.

In the next section, Daniel (alvaro Guerrero), a middle-aged businessman, leaves his wife and daughter to share an apartment with his supermodel mistress, Valeria (Goya Toledo), whose come-hither perfume-ad billboard looms large through the living-room window. The billboard is a beckoning that becomes a cruel taunt: After Valeria is smashed up in the car crash, she looks longingly, tremblingly at herself across the way. Her adored fluffy toy dog descends into a hole in the apartment’s floorboards and is trapped, whimpering and unlocatable, along with the scurrying rats. Valeria is as trapped as her dog – she’s above, he’s below. It’s a conceit out of Bunuel by way of Edgar Allan Poe. Like Bunuel’s Tristana, Valeria has her leg amputated.

There is a Bunuellian figure in the third episode, too, a mangy, wily street person, El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría), who resembles the blind lech in Los Olvidados. But El Chivo’s blindness is metaphorical, not actual. Once a college professor, he deserted his family to become a radical guerrilla and now, surrounded by a flurry of stray dogs, lives in a hovel and carries out hits for hire. El Chivo’s raggediness is his camouflage. Who, after all, would expect such a tramp to be so lethal? As with the first episode, El Chivo’s centers on two brothers intending to do each other in. (One has put out a hit on the other.) We are also exposed to what has been lost in the old man’s life, the love of a daughter who believes he died years ago. This is the stuff of the telenovelas but also, in the filmmakers’ hands, of lyric poetry. When El Chivo shaves off his beard and takes his picture in a penny arcade to place in his daughter’s possession, we can see what was underneath all that foliage: a woeful penitent.

The association of people with their dogs takes on an almost mystical specialness in Amores Perros. The curs, toys, and strays are like emissaries of human folly. They suffer their lives in sympathy with their masters, whose own lives are full of uncontrollable suffering. The gallery of faces in this film is extraordinary; the shape of the drama, of Mexico itself in all its tragic aspect, is right there in the ardent eyes and the hollows and bright bronze of these people. Gonzalez Inarritu films them in continuous brimming close-up; along with us, he can’t get enough of their beauty.

Without being explicit about it, Gonzalez Inarritu has fashioned an intensely Catholic fable. Moral lessons and epiphanies resound. Perhaps without this apparatus of implied religiosity, Amores Perros would be an even greater movie than it is. The director has stated in interviews his belief, as expressed in the film, that violence turns against itself, against its perpetrators. This is no mere didacticism; we see quite intricately in his movie how horror breeds horror. Yet as ferociously bleak as Amores Perros is, it is never nihilistic. It still has an abiding faith in the rites of penance and retribution. This is a small failing, if indeed it is a failing at all. A movie this powerful has surely earned the right to its pieties.

Amores Perros
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

Tales of La Ciudad