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Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2002

DOG DAYS IN MEXICO CITY

Sudden collisions on the road of fate



Amores perros

Rating: * * * *
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Running time: 153 minutes
Language: Spanish
Opens Feb. 2 at Shibuya Saison

Straight outta Mexico City, "Amores perros (Love's a Bitch)" is a film that unfolds with the depth and richness of a novel, while packing the voyeuristic, restless wallop of reality TV. It moves from dodgy street crime and underground dogfights to lifestyles of the rich and famous, and the intersection of the two, where yuppies pay the homeless to assassinate their rivals. It's as comfortable with Tarantino-style hard-boiled pulp -- like a frantic car chase with a dog that's been wounded by a gun shot in the back seat and a truck full of gang-bangers in pursuit -- as it is with Kieslowski-styled mysticism, in which the hand of fate capriciously sends lives careening off in an instant.

News photo
Gael García Bernal in Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Amores Perros"

Mexico City is a city of extremes, and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is clearly a man who embraces them in his art. The result is "Amores perros," a stunningly assured debut that put Gonzalez on the map in 2000, when he picked up the Critics Week Award in Cannes and the Grand Prix in Tokyo.

Starting at full throttle, the director steers us into one momentous car crash, which splinters off in three directions as the film follows separate, but overlapping stories. Fans of similarly dense, layered films like "Short Cuts" or "Magnolia" will find "Amores perros" just as impressive. Like those films, it's a skillfully woven tale with sharp portraits of relationships in crisis, but it also expands to capture the zeitgeist, the essential dynamics of the chaotic city that surrounds them.

The first strand follows Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal), the young guy whose panicky escape later causes that car crash. An unemployed teenager still living at home with his mother, Octavio is vida loca all the way: He's putting his older brother Ramiro's Rottweiler in illegal dogfights and also harboring a barely concealed lust for Susana (Vanessa Bauche), Ramiro's ill-treated, high-school-age wife.

Whether Susana harbors feelings for him remains to be seen, but Octavio is saving his dogfight winnings to finance his dream of running off with her. He also risks the wrath of his rival, Jarocho (Gustavo Sanchez Parra), a gangster whose dogs keep losing to Octavio's.

Strand No. 2 centers on Valeria (Goya Toledo), a Spanish model who's the hottest thing in town, with her long legs spread across billboards and magazine pages. Famous, gorgeous and about to move in with her married lover Daniel (Alvara Guerrero), Valeria thinks she has it all. She's about to find out just how fragile happiness is, though, courtesy of Gustavo's speeding car . . .

The final strand picks up the story of El Chivo, "The Goat" (Emilio Echevarria), a homeless man who witnesses the accident, and -- fatefully -- rescues Gustavo's dog from it. El Chivo is a paradox: He's kind to dogs (he cares for a pack of strays), but he's long since lost any similar feelings for people. A former leftist guerrilla who did 20 years in prison, he now works as a killer for a crooked cop, the only person he has any contact with. Memories of his past life and family start to return, highlighting his isolation, until a bloody incident involving the rescued dog forces him to take a hard look at himself and what he's become . . .

Dealing with an unthinkable future seems to be the thematic glue that holds the film together. "To make God laugh," says Susana to the dreamer Octavio, "tell him your plans." Gonzalez Inarritu spends the whole film hammering this realization home, that everything can change in a moment. Some characters despair, some stubbornly bang their heads againstthe wall of fate, but at the film's end, there's a moment of hope and promise.

As its title suggests, "Amores perros" also gets a lot of mileage from the maxim that you can tell a lot about people based on how they treat their dogs. When Valeria's chow Richie gets trapped in the floorboards beneath her apartment, it provokes the couple's first squabble: Daniel sees Valeria's obsession with rescuing the puppy as unreasonable, while she sees her lover's indifference as a sure sign of his shallow commitment.

Beyond that, the dog-eat-dog world represented in the dogfights comes across as a blunt allegory for the social reality of the city. Even Valeria's spoiled little lap-dog isn't safe from the rats beneath the polished wood floor, while Gustavo's gentle pet learns to kill to survive.

Mention must be made, though, of the disturbing nature of the dogfights; the disclaimer that no dogs were actually hurt during filming probably won't help dog-lovers make it through these scenes.

Although not overly explicit, these scenes -- like the rest of the film -- are shot with an intensity that jumps off the screen. Gonzalez Inarritu uses a deft combination of sharp, confident hand-held camerawork and rich, vibrant color to give the film a hyperreal quality. The grain and texture of the images -- thanks to a postproduction silver tint on the negatives -- recalls the work of photographer Nan Goldin, while the director's sense of rhythm and pacing -- moving from flurries of edgy jump-cuts to mediative, intimate one-shots -- ranks among the best masters like Wong Kar-wai or Darren Aronofsky.

But "Amores perros" has far more than just a "look." A rarity among directors who've made the leap from commercials to feature film, Gonzalez Inarritu is interested in the substance as much as the style, the heart as well as the hype.

Every Sunday, the last screening at night has English and Japanese subtitles.


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