After the tragic crash which occurs in the opening scene the film is divided into three parts; three separate stories edited together, each dealing with characters from different social backgrounds. The first story, Octavio y Susana, focuses on characters from the Mexican lower class. Octavio is infatuated with his teenage sister-in-law Susana, who, along with Octavio’s mother, brother and Susana’s baby son, live together in a crowded apartment. Upon discovering that Susana has yet again become pregnant Octavio vows to protect her from his abusive brother, Ramiro, and they soon begin a love affair. After Cofi, the family Rottweiler, kills a prize-fighting dog belonging to El Jaricho, a violent street thug, Octavio is forced to enter Cofi into a number of illegal dogfights. Cofi becomes a successful prize-fighter himself and makes a substantial amount of money for Octavio. After agreeing to one last big-money fight Octavia realises that Susana has betrayed him by stealing the money he had saved for their new life together. Octavio enters Cofi into the agreed fight but, after seemingly getting the better of his opponent, Cofi is shot by Jaricho. In a fit of rage Octavio stabs Jaricho in retaliation, which results in a return to the car chase and subsequent crash the film opens with. In the second story, Daniel y Valeria, Daniel, a successful middle-aged magazine publisher, leaves his wife and family to live in a new apartment with supermodel Valeria, who we recognise as one of the victims of the crash in the opening sequence. After the accident Valeria suffers a serious leg injury, putting her new modelling contract in jeopardy. To make matters worse, Valeria’s dog Richie gets trapped after falling through a hole in the floorboards. Indeed, the broken floorboards in their expensive apartment may symbolise the complexities of Mexican society, suggesting that even the most privileged have been affected by cultural and political instability. Confined to a wheelchair, Valeria gets increasingly anxious about Richie’s safety and her own helpless predicament, and upon hearing the dog’s distress she makes a futile attempt to prise up the floorboards to rescue him. This leads to a complication of her injuries, the amputation of her leg and the end of her modelling career. The final story, El Chivo y Maru, follows El Chivo, a vagrant and former revolutionary guerrilla who now acts as a gun for hire. Throughout the film El Chivo is seen caring for a group of stray dogs, whilst also appearing at the funeral of his ex-wife where he sees his daughter Mura for the first time since he abandoned his family to ‘set the world right’. El Chivo, therefore, embodies the Left’s various movements for social change which occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. He is hired by the wealthy Gustavo to kill a business partner (and incidentally, brother-in-law). During his reconnaissance of ‘the mark’, El Chivo witnesses the aforementioned car crash. In the aftermath he steals Cofi and retreats to care for the wounded dog, only for Cofi to turn on the other animals, killing them all. This act sparks somewhat of a redemption in El Chivo’s character, as ‘unlike Octavio and Valeria, El Chivo is shrewd enough to recognise something of himself in the killer dog, and to begin to make peace with his haunted past’ (Schickel 2001). Rather than killing the businessman he was hired to assassinate he kidnaps both men, placing a gun between them, leaving them to resolve the situation themselves. He cleans himself up, cuts his hair and nails before breaking into Mura’s home to leave her money and a voicemail apologising for his abandonment. The film closes with El Chivo and Cofi walking off into Desierto de los Leones – a vast, disparate landscape on the outskirts of the city. This ending underscores the film’s social context; symbolising contemporary Mexico where marginalisation and inequality still exist, offering no indication this way of life will change in the near future.
Amores Perros is a captivating yet unnerving portrayal of social inequality, urban violence and the fragility of the human condition, which Marvin D’Lugo (2003: 224) describes as ‘a new moral and cultural landscape of spiritual desolation rooted in the modern megalopolis’. The debut feature film of Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu opens with a frantic car chase and brutal crash that connects three narratives about contemporary Mexican society. The adoption of a cinema vérité shooting style adds an air of authenticity, whilst the inter-connected narrative structure is utilised to ‘generate meaningful insight into everyday life’ (Peters 2008). Iñárritu insists it is ‘a movie about pain, love and redemption – and about Mexico City. … a very complex, contradictory mosaic that’s fascinating and electric and ugly and painful all at once’ (Swart 2001). Amores Perros emphasises the uneven development and overcrowded landscape of Mexico City, which plays host to nearly nine million inhabitants. Here, depictions of extreme wealth and poverty converge (quite literally), epitomising a country which up until a few weeks after the film’s international release had been suffering under the rule of the (largely corrupt) ‘Institutional Revolutionary Party’.
True to the film’s title, which roughly translates to ‘love is like a dog’, the three narratives centre around the relationship between dogs and their owners. According to Geoffrey Kantaris (2003: 186–7), the film uses dog-fighting as a displaced metaphor for human violence and impeded human relationships. Whilst dogs are culturally synonymous with loyalty and devotion, Iñárritu juxtaposes this symbolism with stories of infidelity and deceit, expressing the ferocity of ‘dog-eat-dog’ contemporary urban life. The dogs mirror the psyche of the central protagonists and their fates within the film, with El Chivo remarking in one scene that, ‘Masters take after their dogs’; the allegory being that owners are just as helpless as their animals to change their situation. Much like Cofi who was trained to inflict terrible acts of violence, by the end of the film Octavio has undergone a transformation from baby-faced adolescent to gaunt, violent thug. Here, Octavio’s lack of social mobility and poor quality of life force him to seek wealth through illegal means, with his aggression intensifying as he and Cofi fall deeper into the world of dog-fighting. Valeria’s dog Richie, meanwhile, is cute, fluffy and petite – an apt choice for a glamorous supermodel. After Richie gets trapped in the floorboards his plight reflects Valeria’s own feelings of helplessness, loneliness and loss after her accident. Likewise, El Chivo looks after abandoned strays that are just as marginalised as he is. After Cofi kills the other dogs El Chivo contemplates killing him but decides against it, realising that the animal knows no better. For Maria San Filippo (2001), Amores Perros questions whether those who are taught cruelty and oppression (i.e. forced to accept oppression in order to survive) are to be blamed for exacting that same cruelty, delivering a cynical examination of the human condition and contemporary social milieu.
Although the film in many ways serves to reinforce typical social conventions, most notably gender representations, it is clear that Iñárritu wishes to highlight the complexities of Mexican national identity:
“I am not a Mexican with a moustache and a sombrero, nor am I a corrupt cop or drug trafficker. There are millions like me. And this is the world I live in and the one I want to show.” (Patterson 2001)
In doing so, Amores Perros interrogates what it means to be Mexican on a thematic level by reflecting on the effects of cultural modernity in Latin American society. By portraying the tensions that persist for millions of Mexicans (rigid class division, lack of political agency, etc.), Iñárritu shifts the focus from pre-established national stereotypes to represent contemporary Mexico in a phase of political and cultural transition. This is perhaps most apparent in the representation of family, with the film’s most malicious acts (adultery, physical violence, even planned assassination) being carried out by kin. Besides offering a critical treatment of issues such as teenage pregnancy, absent father figures and domestic violence, the dissolution of the family unit throughout signifies a crisis of national identity. As De La Garza suggests, ‘The family, often drawn upon as a metaphor for the nation in nationalist discourses, is under siege in the film by both the poor and the rich’ (De La Amores Perros (2000) 35 Garza 2006: 152). Furthermore, Iñárritu offers no discernible positive resolution to the anguish of both the lower and middle classes, presenting a stark realisation that the continued urbanisation of Mexico heightens socio-political tensions.
One of the film’s central themes, loss and regret, reflects feelings of unease and insecurity which permeated Mexican society during the film’s production. In fact, as De La Garza (2006: 152–3) argues, the film exposes the ‘contingency of identities’ by showing them as ‘unfixed’. Throughout the film, characters gaze upon photographs of themselves or their families (the picture of a youthful Octavio and Ramiro in Octavio’s wallet, the billboard poster of Valeria that can be seen from her and Daniel’s apartment, the family portraits El Chivo examines whilst at Mura’s home); here, characters are defined by what they have lost as they look upon these photographs with yearning nostalgia:
“It’s as if in this ‘post modern’ Mexico, characters need to have their identities confirmed by the photographs, as if they were relying on them as aids for telling themselves the stories of their lives.” (De La Garza 2006: 153)
The style and structure of the film further emphasises this notion, depicting a country formally bound to tradition and heritage amidst a period of rapid cultural change; the outcome of which is a society ‘characterized by the continuous juxtapositions between the modern and primitive, between a glamorous world of televisual images and the leitmotifs of animalistic violence’ (D’Lugo 2003: 224). Iñárritu’s blend of avant-garde techniques (use of multiple film-stocks, disjointed narrative, extreme close-ups) with more commercial and internationally appealing elements (rapid editing style, contemporary soundtrack, themes of sex and violence) highlights the complexities of Mexico’s cinematic identity. For D’Lugo (2003: 222), Amores Perros embodies the contradictions of contemporary urban life at the end of the century. Importantly, it manages to do this in ways that also engage non-Mexican audiences. Indeed, the film was produced by Altavista Films, a relatively new company whose stated policy is to produce films that reach a midpoint between commercial crowd-pleasers and art-house movies (Malcolm 2002). Given its success both nationally and internationally, Amores Perros has been associated with a revival of Mexican cinema, with an increase of private funding being made available to support films of a more commercial, yet artistically innovative, nature (Tierney 2009: 101). Consequently, the range of visual, stylistic and narrative strategies utilised by Mexican filmmakers to appeal to both national and international markets expresses the effects of globalisation and the complexities of cultural modernity within contemporary Mexican society.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Mexico. Production Company: Altavista Films, Zeta Films. Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu. Screenwriter: Guillermo Arriaga. Cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto. Editors: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Luis Carballar, Fernando Pérez Unda. Cast: Gael García Bernal (Octavio), Vanessa Bauche (Susana), Alvaro Guerrero (Daniel), Goya Toledo (Valeria), Emilio Echeverría (El Chivo).]
Armida De La Garza, Mexico on Film: National Identity & International Relations, Bury St Edmunds, Arena Books, 2006.
Marvin D’Lugo, ‘Amores perros/Love’s a Bitch’, in A. Elena and M. Díaz López (eds), The Cinema of Latin America, London, Wallflower Press, 2003, pp. 221–9.
Geoffrey Kantaris, ‘The Young and the Damned: Street Visions in Latin American Cinema’, in S. Hart and R. Young (eds), Contemporary Latin American Cultural Studies, London, Arnold, 2003, pp. 177–89.
Derek Malcolm, ‘Mexico Lit up by Dog’s Star’, The Guardian, April 7, 2002. www.guardian.co.uk/ film/2002/apr/07/features.mexico.
John Patterson, ‘Aztec Cameras’, The Guardian, May 18, 2001. www.guardian.co.uk/film/ 2001/may/18/culture.features2.
Lindsay Peters, ‘Private Fears in Public Places: Network Narrative and the Post-“Smart” American Melodrama’, Synoptique, Vol. 12, October 28, 2008. www.synoptique.ca/core/ articles/private_fears_in_public_places.
Maria San Filippo, ‘Amores Perros’, Senses of Cinema 13: April 10, 2001. http://sensesofcinema. com/2001/13/amores.
Richard Schickel, ‘A Bite As Tough As Its Bark: Dogs are humans’ best friends in the superb Amores Perros’, Time Magazine, 16 April, 2001, Vol. 157 (15), p. 78. 36
Amores Perros (2000) S. Swart, ‘Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu: Helmer gets raw with Amores Perros’, Variety, 15 January 2001, https://variety.com/2001/film/news/alejandro-gonzalez-inarritu-1117792068/
Dolores Tierney, ‘Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu: Director without Borders’, New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film Vol. 7 (2), 2009, pp. 101–17.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.