Festival of Mights, II

Headlining the second week of international film, Mexico and France provide some evocative, provocative heavy hitters

Read Part 1, Festival of Might

Featuring a cast of outstanding young actors and a pack of symbol-laden dogs, first-time director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu's urban portraitcaptures the daily desperation and persistent hopes of an ensemble of characters in millennial Mexico City. Economic class and personal histories clash when parallel stories are linked together by a car accident. Amores Perros (Love's a Bitch), an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, has received some notoriety due to bloody scenes of dogfighting and other graphic assaults. But this realistic violence should not be a reason to miss Amores Perros, for rare is a film so full of grace.

Absent are the folkloric poverty, magical realism, and telenovela melodrama that supply stock Latin-American imagery onscreen. And although Amores Perros is peppered with clever references to traditional and pop culture, mere irony is not the point. Screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga's twisting, detail-rich plot comprises a deeply felt portrayal of a society that would explode were it not so tightly bound by human fiber.

Emilio Echevarria plays a freedom-fighting guerrilla turned homeless hit man in Amores Perros
Emilio Echevarria plays a freedom-fighting guerrilla turned homeless hit man in Amores Perros

In the first of the film's three interlocking segments, two streetwise young brothers spend their days hustling for cash. Ramiro works as a supermarket cashier when not robbing stores; his goal is to pull off a bank heist. Octavio gets involved in the vicious underground world of dogfighting after his rottweiler kills the neighborhood champ. The objects of both brothers' desire is Ramiro's wife, nursing one baby and unwittingly pregnant again. These riveting scenes take an unflinching look at Mexico's inner-city youth with unsentimental realism. The characters live in claustrophobic flats and speak in fantastically creative Mexico City slang .

The mood changes in the second story, featuring a supermodel named Valeria and her married lover, hip bourgeoisie who are agonizingly forced to face their own superficiality. The final segment of the film focuses on "El Chivo," a freedom-fighting guerrilla turned homeless hit man. Under his eccentric exterior is a man who longs for the family he abandoned, but he can only express his love to his scruffy canine pals.

The characters in the film generally relate best to their dogs. The ever-present animals serve to highlight the peoples' flaws but also act to trigger human consciousness. The dogfight scenes imply an obvious, but still effective, dog-eat-dog symbolism. The fate of the model's terrier metaphorically mirrors its owner's, when in some eerie scenes the dog becomes trapped under the floorboards of her apartment. El Chivo's beloved dogs eventually send him on the path to redemption.

This is certainly an ensemble piece, and the actors, most of whom have strong theater backgrounds, are all admirable. Gael Garcia Bernal (Octavio), appearing in his first film, Emilio Echevarria (El Chivo), and Goya Toledo (Valeria) are particularly notable.

Thirty-eight-year-old director Gonzalez Iñarritu has been compared to Quentin Tarantino, presumably because of the swift camera work in this film, its zigzagging plot line, and the violence. But the Mexican director is more concerned with the substance beneath the flash, and if comparisons must be made, Gonzalez Iñarritu seems to share more common ground with Steven Soderbergh, Paul Thomas Anderson, or Pedro Almodovar. Amores Perros is a hard-hitting, intensely emotional film, the heart of which lies in its marvelously developed portraits of Mexico City residents, as well as in its portrayal of the city itself as central character. The screenplay, by Guillermo Arriaga, underwent 36 drafts over a three-year period. The payoff is rich. Expect to have your own heart stuck in your throat throughout this stunning film.

 
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