Will globalization kill the foreign film? Sometimes, it seems as if the entire planet has become ' in younger directors' minds, anyway ' one vast hood where the gangbangers flash their gold, their guns, their live-fast-and-leave-a-bullet-ridden-corpse attitudes. Take Mexico's Alejandro GonzÃlez IÃÃrritu, who was once a disc jockey, then made hundreds of TV commercials and has now turned, at age 37, to film with Amores Perros, his three-part epic about life and death in contemporary Mexico City. It would be tempting to write IÃÃrritu off as yet another MTVidkid who's mastered the international language of cinema ' the snapshot esthetic that has become a kind of handheld Esperanto ' but you sense him reaching for something beyond the usual chic squalor. "To show life as it is here," IÃÃrritu told The New York Times when asked what he was trying to achieve. "Not the Taco Bell idea."
So much for the mariachis and Chihuahuas and Frito Bandito stereotypes that many of us have come to depend on as signifiers that we've slipped south of the border again. (See Brad Pitt behind the wheel of his El Camino in The Mexican. Or don't.) The question is, what's left after you've pitched those stereotypes? What is life like in Mexico City these days? Part of the pleasure of watching Amores Perros is trying to decipher what's Mexican about it. The language, of course, although I'm not sure I'd have been able to tell the difference if the movie were in Portuguese and the whole thing took place in Sao Paulo. IÃÃrritu's camera deliberately avoids the kind of historical landmarks that would place the tourists among us in the Mexico City of our travels. Instead, we're shown a city that could be any number of megacities around the world ' cancerous growths in which life is nasty, brutish and short.
As if to bring that point home, IÃÃrritu opens with a scene in which a dog that's been shot is pouring blood all over the back seat of a car that's being chased by another car. Tarantino buffs will notice the similarity to the opening of Reservoir Dogs, and it should be pointed out that Amores Perros also has a barking pun in its title, which loosely translates as Love's a Bitch. Otherwise, InÃrritu is like Tarantino without the irony ' i.e., not that Tarantino-ish at all. He seems determined to get to the heart of this dog-eat-dog world we live in, whereas Tarantino seems content to skate along the surface. And so we're introduced to Octavio (Gael GarcÃa Bernal), who has the grungy good looks of a Calvin Klein model and yet no discernible source of income. Crammed into a ratty apartment with his mother, his bullying brother and his brother's wife and child, Octavio's already reached a dead end in his life.
Then he discovers that his dog, a Rottweiler, has a talent for ripping other dogs apart. Despite the movie's disclaimer, some will find it impossible to believe that no dogs were injured in the making of this film. The dogfights, which are set in an abandoned swimming pool, provide Octavio with enough cash to propose running away with his sister-in-law, whom he's in love with. And although they're hellacious to watch, the fights are also a powerful metaphor for a time and place where, instead of licking you in the face, life sinks its teeth into your neck. InÃrritu and his scriptwriter, Guillermo Arriaga, take their my-life-as-a-dog metaphor about as far as it can go. In each of the film's three stories, which overlap like a folded triptych, dogs not only resemble their owners, they represent them ' a strangely effective device, since many viewers are likely to get more worked up over the dogs than over the people.
Like such recent films as Go and Run Lola Run, Amores Perros starts its narrative engines three times, in this case after a car wreck that has the characters caroming off one another and back to their individual lives. After "Octavio y Susana," we get "Daniel y Valeria," the latter couple inhabiting a rung considerably higher up the socioeconomic ladder. Daniel (Ãlvaro Guerrero) has just left his wife and kids to live with Valeria (Goya Toledo) when she gets blindsided by Octavio. Her leg shattered, this sexy supermodel is soon trapped between the billboards and the floorboards, her beloved pooch having fallen through a hole in the hardwood and neglected to come back out while Valeria's own image, on the building across the street, is replaced by a "This Space Available" notice. On top of its being difficult to work up sympathy for a supermodel, this is the weakest segment, the symbols driving the characters rather than vice versa.
Finally, we meet El Chivo, a professor turned guerrilla turned hitman (talk about your tenured radicals) who, for all appearances, is a homeless wino. Which is one of the reasons he's such a successful hitman; nobody sees him coming. With his long, scraggly hair and beard, his tattered sports coat, his grimy tennis shoes and the layers and layers of dirt beneath his fingernails, El Chivo looks like Karl Marx after one hell of a bender, and he could easily have justified his own movie, so effectively does he drift through this one. Emilio EchevarrÃa, one of Mexico's most celebrated actors, endows this lost soul with a fierce sadness and an inchoate desire for the daughter he was forced to abandon. Like Octavio's dog, which he rescues from the wrecked car and then nurses back to health, El Chivo is both man's best friend and man's worst enemy, but the movie nevertheless offers him the possibility of salvation.
Clocking in at well over two hours, Amores Perros wears its ambitions on its blood-splattered sleeve, and some people may have trouble getting past the first dogfight, which, though brutal, is mercilessly short and edited so as to spare us the sight of teeth entering flesh. On the other hand, IÃÃrritu luxuriates in the aftermath of violence ' the mopping up of blood, the rattling of death through a defeated dog's body. Within the limits of commercial filmmaking, Amores Perros is less about violence per se than about the effects of violence, the way it kills, if not your body, then your soul. "We are what we have lost," one of the characters says during the movie, nailing the theme in a single sentence. Instead of mariachis, Chihuahuas and the Frito Bandito, IÃÃrritu gives us traffic, smog and crime, a ferociously beautiful city whose bite is even worse than its bark.