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Tragic Tales, Gone to the Dogs

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2001


    'Amores Perros' Emilio Echevarria plays a street wanderer in "Amores Perros." (Lions Gate)
Novelist Guillermo Arriaga has the perfect description for "Amores Perros," the Mexican film that has won festival awards around the world and probably would have claimed the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film if not for a certain phenomenally successful movie called "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

"Most of all," says Arriaga of his screenplay, which took 36 drafts, "I wanted it to be fiercely human."

This movie, a triptych whose overlapping structure is reminiscent of such movies as "Pulp Fiction," "Before the Rain" and "Winter Sleepers," is definitely fierce and most definitely human.

Set in Mexico City, where the streets teem with stray dogs, the movie's fierceness includes gruesome dogfighting (although it should be clear to most that these are depictions), sudden bursts of violence (but nothing you don't see in the average "Lethal Weapon" sequel) and on a less-bloody level: intense, almost operatic suffering.

That anguish ranges from gritty and realistic to the tragicomic soap opera found in Pedro Almodovar's films.

As for the human element in "Amores Perros" (whose title translates as "life's a bitch"), we're talking about an unforgettable rogues gallery of Mexico City characters, high and low, all of them linked by the strange, ineffable forces of fate and circumstance. All of them, in some way, are linked by dogs.

And in this biblically textured drama, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, all of them will suffer judgment for their actions. Those who live by violence, adultery or vanity are undone by the same. And it takes an outsider, a bearded street wanderer observing the tragic theater around him, to make a difference, to turn things around for the better.

The story starts with a black dog named Cofi who lives with a dysfunctional family. The household includes the teenage Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal); his brother, Ramiro (Marco Perez), whose business is store robbery; and Ramiro's long-suffering and pregnant wife, Susana (Vanessa Bauche).

Fate's wheels start turning when Octavio, who's in love with Susana, decides to save his sister-in-law from Ramiro's abuse. When he learns that Cofi killed a prize-winning fighting dog in a street fight, he sees a way to finance his and Susana's evacuation. So he enters the seamy world of dogfighting, Cofi at his side.

Cofi's a real killer, it turns out. But although Cofi garners prize money for Octavio, he also engenders resentment from Jarocho (Gustavo Sanchez Parra), a street punk who keeps losing dogs to the new champ.

That's one of the three stories. Another segment (the quasi-Almodovarian one, if you will) is about Daniel (Alvaro Guerrero), a magazine editor, husband and father who leaves his family for a famous actress-model named Valeria (Goya Toledo). But their bliss becomes misery when Valeria's beloved pooch, Richie, suffers an undignified fate. There's worse in store for Valeria.

The third story concerns El Chivo (Emilio Echevarria), the aforementioned street wanderer, who has a political past, who cares for street dogs, and who does dirty work for a corrupt cop.

The main narrative intersection – the one that brings these disparate people together – is a road accident. And the movie, ingeniously layered, keeps coming back to that incident, giving us an ever-expanding big picture.

If at times, "Amores Perros" feels a little overwrought, not to mention brutal, its passionate conviction carries us through those moments. That sense of conviction comes from the movie's characters who live their lives intensely, hoping against hope that they can succeed in spite of everything. But, as one character points out, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans."

"Amores Perros" (Unrated, 153 minutes) – In Spanish with subtitles. Contains depictions of bloody dogfighting and dead animals, as well as violence. Also: nudity and obscenity.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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