Flashback Fridays: Amores Perros

For many cinephiles, last week's Oscars ceremony was a long-awaited series of wins for Mexican film director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. His trophies for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture for "Birdman" are the culmination of a career that kicked off in 2000 with the premiere of "Amores Perros." It still stands as one of the most popular debuts of the decade. It was one of a series of films that kicked off what Roger Ebert termed as the New Mexican Cinema, a flowering of talent from Mexican filmmakers that included names such as Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro and even SMC's own Film Program head, Professor Salvador Carrasco. These directors would go on to make their names with titles such as "Gravity," "Pan's Labyrinth" and "The Other Conquest."

Inarritu's film was a feverish collection of three stories that were a journey into the bowels of modern Mexico City. Shot in a grainy, aggressive style, "Amores Perros" opens with the melodramatic tale of Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal), a jobless guy in a working class neighborhood smitten with Susana (Vanessa Bauche), the wife of his fierce, violent brother Ramiro (Marco Perez). He tries to make enough money to run away with her by secretly using Ramiro's dog in underground dog fights. In the second story, a middle class magazine editor (Alvaro Guerrero) has an affair with a high class model named Valeria (Goya Toledo). When she's disfigured in a car crash their relationship takes a a nose dive with her pet dog as a bystander. In the final story, El Chivo (Emilio Echeverria), a former professor turned guerrilla turned homeless street wanderer, is hired to carry out a contract killing that might force his own life to take a different turn.

In the 15 years since it was first released, "Amores Perros" remains popular for its dark heart and bloody vision. A rare foreign film hit in an era before YouTube, social media and the onslaught of movie blogs, the movie established several careers. It was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. The film's cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, was immediately snatched up by Hollywood where he would go on to shoot for major directors like Oliver Stone, Ang Lee and most recently, Martin Scorsese. Actor Gael Garcia Bernal became one of the most recognizable of modern Latin American actors, going on to star in hits like "The Motorcycle Diaries" and "Rosewater." Even screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, renowned for his dark, pessimistic writing, became a sought talent and for a while a novelist. My favorite of his novels remains "The Guillotine Squad," a fable set during the Mexican Revolution where a French doctor gives Pancho Villa a guillotine to terrorize the local oligarchs.

But without a doubt it was Inarritu who's career was launched to the highest degree by "Amores Perros." It gained a cult following among movie geeks bowled over by the film's violence and over the top melodrama. It was one of the rare movies that borrowed the "Pulp Fiction" formula of mixing several, interlocking stories dipped in various genres, giving it instant attention from post-modern disciples of Quentin Tarantino. Inarritu would try the formula two more times in the weaker "21 Grams" (his American debut) and the large scale Oscar-nominee "Babel." But while those films can have a muddled, even subdued feel, "Amores Perros" rushes headlong with the tone of a first work demanding attention.

The stories borrow from classic Latin American melodrama and pump up the volume. Octavio and Susana are two characters yanked from a Mexican soap opera and thrown into the hellish underbelly of Mexico City. The story of the magazine editor and the super model also borrows from pulp dime novel lore in its criticism of the Mexican upper class by having the model lose her leg, like a crack in the facade of wealth in such an unequal country. For American audiences accustomed to the kind of dry, shallow romance and CGI-infused violence offered by Hollywood, "Amores Perros" might seem like a visceral curiosity, which explains why it has aged well in comparison to something like the "Taken" films. The film's title for English markets was even translated to "Love's A Bitch." Its characters are driven by jealousies, inhibitions and urges typical in Latin American pop culture, but rare in mainstream U.S. cinema. In a society where attraction and relationships are seen through a very cold, shallow prism, the characters in "Amores Perros" are driven to extremes and near psychotic stages over lust, loneliness and desire. While some might see the film as overkill, it's understandable why the film might have a certain power after walking out of "The Best Of Me."

Now that Inarritu has found a sure footing in Hollywood, and the success of "Birdman" has reignited interest in his work, "Amores Perros" will now secure new viewers who will either love it, hate it, find it overbearing, or embrace its sound and fury.