“You and your plans. You know what my grandmother used to say? If you want to make God laugh… tell Him your plans.”
Susana to Octavio (her grandmother is clearly a big Woody fan)
The year 2000 was the point of significant cultural change in Mexico. The unexpected defeat of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party after 71 years of rule, saw the election of Vincente Fox Quesada who promised a sea-change to rebuild the country after decades of corruption and increasing inequality. AMORES PERROS reflects this turbulence in society with its frenetic action. The car accident at the heart of the film brings different classes colliding together. It also marked a revival in the fortunes of the moribund film-industry which culminated in Alfonso Cuarón becoming the first Latin American director to receive an Oscar, 14 years later.
With its hand-held camera movement, whip pans and spontaneous naturalism it’s possible to overlook the beautiful construction of the narrative. It has far greater coherence than Inarritu’s subsequent work 21 GRAMS (2003) and BABEL (2006) which he sometimes describes as a trilogy with death as an over-arching theme. AMORES… is a stunning debut that never loses its grip throughout its longer-than-you-think running time, and maintains a thrilling momentum up until the final third when it becomes more contemplative. There are three stories interwoven with overlapping scenes and thematic concerns. Dogs are a common motif used to reflect on the character’s situations and themes of loyalty.
The first story is about Octavio a young man living with his mother, brother and his wife. He has a burgeoning infatuation towards his sister-in-law and wants to protect her from the brutality of his brother. He enters his dog into an underground dog fighting ring to raise money so they can escape together. Amongst the grime and the violence, their relationship is passionate yet tender and the gentle performance of Gael Garcia Bernaz brought him to the attention of international audiences, (Y tu mamá también followed). The relationship is doomed as is his fortunes in the tough environment of the dog fighting.
The tempo changes for the middle story, but it is no less intense, as this is about Valeria a super-model who is badly injured in the car accident caused by Octavio. Daniel is successful magazine publisher who has left his wife and daughters to live with her and needs to become her carer following the accident. Her pampered pooch Richie disappears under the floorboards, over the days that pass she becomes obsessed with recovering him from a fate of being gnawed to death by the rats that dwell there. The noises of the whimpering dog and the billboards visible from the apartment, depicting Valeria’s long legs are a mocking reminder to Daniel of what he has lost and the situation he has found himself in. When her wounds go gangrenous and her leg needs to be amputated, his sense of loyalty is tested to the point of insanity.
The final story of El Chivo, The Goat, is the most interesting. His dirty, bearded appearance is intriguing from the outset. We see him gleaning food from the rubbish in the streets, calmly assassinating a businessman as he eats at a restaurant and watching the funeral of his wife from a distance. He rescues Octavio’s dog from the wreckage of the car accident, interrupting a planned assassination. We are told that that he was a school teacher turned guerrilla who spent a long time in prison on account of his crimes. Now he lives with his dogs in a derelict building on the edges of the city, occasionally acting as a hit man for local criminals. His daughter believes him to be dead and he is desperate to reach her and enter her life to learn about the events in her growing up that he has missed.
He reaches a moment of clarity following a horrific scene involving Octavio’s dog. He feels empathy towards the animal, so much so that he decides to change his appearance and his attitude towards humanity.
The three overlapping stories and the fluid movement of time invited the tag of ‘a Mexican PULP FICTION’ and there is certainly indebtedness to Tarantino. The opening scene is almost identical to RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) except there is a Rottweiler bleeding on the back seat rather than Tim Roth. Comparisons to Tarantino are fairly superficial as these characters are not cartoons: its reveals more about the human condition rather than fetishising pop-culture. Its probably more accurate to say that Tarantino’s style created an appetite in world audiences that AMORES … satisfied. In terms of its narrative concerns its probably closer to literary influences such as Paul Auster; the film shares his concern with coincidence and how a spontaneous event can send characters lives into many unexpected directions.
There’s a note of optimism at the end. The lone El Chivo sets out across the border with his dog that he has renamed ‘Blackie’. He is wearing his broken spectacles so that his vision is no longer blurry. Despite all of the change that he has encountered, there is hope.