One doesn’t watch Amores Perros (Love’s a Bitch) so much as absorb it — like a body blow. “I wanted to make a movie that smelled of filth,” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has said about his feature directorial debut. He has succeeded beyond perhaps even his wildest dreams.
A stunning achievement, thematically, emotionally and artistically, the film has a visceral impact that comes as much from the bold, scabrous images that dominate the screen as from the grim, hellish circumstances in which the characters find themselves. Structured as a triptych, the film, set in Mexico City, concerns the lives of three disparate characters whose fates intersect when each is involved in the catastrophic car accident that opens the film.
The first segment, “Octavio and Susanna,” is set in the vicious underground world of dog fighting. (Dogs figure prominently in all three stories.) Teenage Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal) is in love with the wife of his volatile and abusive older brother. To earn the money needed to run away with her, he enters his rottweiler, Cofi, in a series of fights. The level of human violence and destruction parallels that of the dogs in the ring. During the opening scene’s high-speed chase, Octavio’s automobile spins out of control, plowing into another vehicle.
The driver of that second vehicle is Valeria (Goya Toledo), a beautiful fashion model who has just set up housekeeping with her boyfriend, a married businessman who has left his family for her. Their lives unravel in the second segment, “Daniel and Valeria,” when the supermodel must cope with the loss of her physical perfection.
“El Chivo and Maru,” the final chapter, focuses on a political revolutionary turned hired killer (Emilio Echevarria), who shuns society but showers affection on his four beloved dogs. His life is irrevocably changed when he witnesses the collision and rescues the injured rottweiler.
The movie’s first and third episodes are the strongest, thanks to their thematically rich plotlines and the psychological conflicts to which they give rise. The actors appear to really be living their roles; Garcia Bernal, in particular, gives a memorable performance as the teenage boy.
The “Daniel and Valeria” episode suffers from bland characters — the curse of the middle class — and the crises they face are less dramatic and engaging than those of the other two stories. Life lessons are learned, but they seem a just punishment rather than a case of Olympian retribution.
In the final episode, the gods unleash their full fury. “El Chivo and Maru,” the most poignant of the three segments as well as the most emotionally powerful, recalls the timeless myths of the Greeks or the great tragedies of Shakespeare. As the professor turned revolutionary turned assassin, Echevarria combines a steely edginess with an empathetic world-weariness. An island in a sea of wretched humanity, he considers himself immune to pain until he unexpectedly finds himself at a moral crossroads.
Amores Perros is a film of tremendous complexity and depth, a galvanic force that sends the mind reeling. It’s hard to fathom how something so brutal can, at the same time, be so poetic. Yet poetic it is — and beautiful. The movie has an intensity of spirit, a purity of emotion, that suggests that even on the road to hell, one can find redemption.