by Jon Bastian
Incredible film from Mexico will leave you wondering why the dogs lost out to the dragons in this year’s Oscars
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Amores perros, given the semi-accurate English title of “Love’s a Bitch” (perros being slang for mean or nasty) was nominated for The Best Foreign Language Film Oscar® this year. It lost out to a far more slick and commercial film with much less depth and meaning — which should tell you right there which is the better movie. (Not surprisingly, the film has won every award for which it has been nominated — except for those in the United States.) Amores perros can be read several other ways, though. The title is actually run-on, as amoresperros, which could be a play on “love hopes.” Or it can also be read as “Loves/Dogs” (both words being nouns), and that’s as accurate a description of the unifying elements of the stories as any, although the movie is much, much more than the sum of its parts.
It’s a difficult film to review only in that I don’t want to give away anything. The slow unveiling of characters and events in its three tangentially related stories is the biggest enjoyment of this film. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, working from the dense and marvelous script by Guillermo Arriaga Jordan, weaves a visual and aural tapestry that is also very novelistic in mood. The journey he takes us on is epic, and yet the tales he tells are intimate, and every one involves some aspect of love or loyalty, as well as a dog or dogs. In Octavio y Susana, we have a young man falling for the girl he should not, and getting involved in the seedy world of dog-fighting to try to finance his escape with her. In Daniel y Valeria, a man moves in with his ultimate fantasy celebrity model girlfriend, only to have everything get ripped apart (literally and figuratively) in the wake of a car accident and a missing dog. Finally, in El Chivo y Maru, a seemingly homeless man carries out odd jobs for money, biding his time until he can make up for an error in his past, until an encounter with a Rottweiler and two brothers who might as well have been called Cain and Abel forces him into a major change of heart.
These disparate stories are linked by the above mentioned car crash, but why and how that crash happens is part of the surprise in one of those tales. Iñárritu drops us into the middle of the action leading to that event, then backs up to the beginning of the story, and the mystery about how these particular characters came to be in this situation gives great dramatic momentum to the first act of the film. As it later turns out, the first moment we see when we jump back to the beginning is the single incident that makes everything else in the film happen, but it’s such a small thing that it seems entirely unimportant at the time. It reminded me of the famous description of chaos theory: that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a hurricane in New York.
Of the three stories, Octavio y Susana is the most well-developed and intricate, although El Chivo y Maru is the most emotionally satisfying and provides a needed hint of redemption. Daniel y Valeria is the weakest of the three pieces, possibly because the concept of a famous model suffering disfigurement is not that unique. Also, by making one of the subjects world-renowned, the story is one step removed from common experience, unlike the other two tales. However, as the second act of the film, it works just fine, while also providing illuminating glimpses into the other stories.
The cast is universally superb, and to point out a few of them doesn’t mean I didn’t find everybody incredible. But I must mention some of the standouts. Gael García Bernal, as Octavio, gives a touching depiction of a teenager still living in the naïve world of his own dreams, deluded into believing that just because he wants something to happen it will. When his dreams shatter, his turn-around into beaten-down walking shell is equally effective. He is ideally matched by Marco Pérez as Ramiro, his older, nastier brother. Their relationship gives a whole new meaning to the term “sibling rivalry,” and, together, they are absolutely believable. Providing the stable feminine influence between the volatile brothers is Vanessa Bauche as Susana, a woman who has been thrust into motherhood before she was quite done being a child, but has adapted nonetheless.
The real star of the film, though is veteran Mexican actor Emilio Echevarría as El Chivo. That name means The Goat, but can also connote a fit of anger, and Echevarría, at least in appearance, lives up to the name. For most of the film, he looks like a wild-haired, bearded homeless man, sort of a Moses with a shopping cart. He also has the least dialogue of any major role, but knows how to command attention with silence. Echevarría has astounding screen presence, and from the moment we first spot him, we know he’s more than just some old guy wandering the streets with a pack of dogs. He also intrudes upon the other stories more than they intrude upon his, but always as a socially invisible gray presence on the edges of the other characters’ lives. When we finally do get into El Chivo y Maru, The Goat finds himself faced with an enormous moral decision, but it’s Echevarría’s performance as much as the script that keeps us guessing as to what he’s really up to and what he’s going to do.
I do have to insert one warning here, though, since I am a major dog-lover, which is that a lot of the film revolves around the so-called “sport” of dog-fighting. While the scenes were obviously shot to imply violence that wasn’t occurring on-set, and the filmmakers provide their assurance that no animals were injured in the making of the film, these scenes are still disturbing. However, they are intrinsic to the plot. Incidentally, the American Humane Association has not given their official approval to the film, despite the upfront disclaimer — but this is largely because they do not monitor production in Mexico. The AHA was provided with a behind-the-scenes documentary by the filmmakers to show their compliance, and how they trained the “fighting dogs” so that they were actually just playing with each other in a friendly manner, everything else created by editing and sound effects. However, because some of the dogs were anesthetized under veterinary supervision to simulate them being severely injured or dead, the AHA has given the movie questionable status because any kind of anesthetizing of animals is not an approved practice for films within their jurisdiction. So, take this paragraph for what it’s worth and decide for yourself if this would dissuade you from seeing an otherwise excellent film.
“Excellent” is the best description of this film that comes to mind. From the writing to the direction to the cast, to the use of sound and editing, everything here works. The further we get into the stories, the denser everything becomes and, despite its over two-and-a-half-hour running time, the film seems much shorter than it really is. If you have the chance to see Amores perros in your area, see it. Afterwards, you’ll wonder how anything else could have snagged that Oscar®.
Jon Bastian is a playwright, screenwriter and TV writer living in Los Angeles, who dedicates this review to the memory of his recently passed 16-year-old American Eskimo mix, Dazé — and to the future of his newly adopted year-old American Eskimo mix, Shadow.
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