[Screen It]

(2000) (Gael García Bernal, Emilio Echevarría) (R)

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Drama: Various people are connected and affected by the dogs they own as well as a serious car accident that alters their lives forever.
Somewhere in Mexico City, Octavio (GAEL GARCÍA BERNAL) is a young man who lives with his brother, Ramiro (MARCO PERÉZ), that man's wife, Susana (VANESSA BAUCHE), and their dog, Cofi. Ramiro treats Susana horribly, a point that hasn't escaped the attention of Octavio who's found himself now in love with her. While they begin an affair and he wants her to run off with him, she's hesitant because he has no money.

When Cofi ends up killing a dog-fighting champion canine owned by local hood, Jarocho (GUSTAVO SANCHEZ PARRA), Octavio decides to enter the dog into such contests to raise money for Susana, and he's soon making more than he ever could have imagined. Yet, a series of events ends all of that and results in a bad car accident that leads to the film's second story. In it, Valeria (GOYA TOLEDO) is a leggy model whose body adorns large billboards across the city. She's having an affair with Daniel (ÁLVARO GUERRERO), an executive who's left his wife and kids to be with her.

When she's seriously injured in that car accident, her and Daniel's lives are forever turned upside down, a point only worsened when her beloved dog jumps through a new hole in their apartment floor and disappears. As the two try to find and remove the pooch, they must also contend with the likelihood that her modeling career is over.

In the film's third story, El Chivo (EMILIO ECHEVARRÍA) appears to be a street derelict who's actually a former anarchist who now makes a living as a hired assassin. His latest hire - arranged by a local corrupt cop, Leonardo (JOSÉ SEFAMI) - is Gustavo (RODRIGO MURRAY) who wants his partner and half-brother killed. While preparing for that hit and tending to his many dogs as well as one that he rescued from the car accident, Chivo also follows and tries to make contact with his now adult daughter, Maru (LOURDES ECHEVARRÍA), that he abandoned long ago.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Although movies are supposed to be all about story, character and artistic vision, the bottom line is that the majority of those who finance them are more concerned with the bottom line - making a profit - than with any of that artistic nonsense. Ergo, Hollywood, and many other "filmmaking bodies" are primarily interested in success, and thus films that look like they'll fall into that descriptive category.

Not surprisingly then, when a certain film or genre hits it big, those who write the checks suddenly get envious and we're consequently then flooded with copycat pictures that, far more often than not, aren't as good as the original film (which itself is usually just some creative rehashing of a previous effort or style).

While such producers tend to run certain films or genres into the ground trying to eke out every last penny of the latest fad/craze and do so to the point that people don't want to see them anymore - such as is the case with the recent teen comedy format - I'm happy to report that they've yet to do the same to films that are told in a nonlinear fashion. Those are the types where the plot progresses to a point and then either rewinds and tells the same story again with a twist, or tells a different but related one that inhabits the same temporal plane as the first.

Quentin Tarantino reinvigorated that sort of storytelling with 1994's "Pulp Fiction," while a flurry of such films in the mid to late 1990s used that as their hooks. The fun of such movies is that their atypical structure makes them inherently captivating, with the fun coming from trying to figure out how they'll twist and turn upon themselves and how their various characters will connect or interact.

Having heard that "Amores Perros," the Mexican entry for Best Foreign Language film at the 2000 Oscar Ceremonies used such a nonlinear approach, I eagerly awaited what the film would offer in such regards. While it does tell three distinct stories - one at a time - that are related by a pivotal car accident that opens the film, the picture won't blow anyone away with its temporal twists.

Yet, instead of relying of playing with time to engage the viewer, director Alejandro González Iñárritu (making his feature film debut) and writer Guillermo Arriaga ("A Sweet Smell of Death") have fashioned a captivating and engaging film - that just so happens to jump around in time - through sheer terrific storytelling and filmmaking. What's most remarkable about that is that their film - like much of "Pulp Fiction" - has nary a traditionally likable or sympathetic character.

Nonetheless, the way in which they're drawn and portrayed, as well as how their stories are told, should keep most viewers completely mesmerized during the film's two and a half hour or so runtime. Somewhat of a grungier and less flashy version of Tarantino's picture, this film's three stories all deal with various, less than savory characters tied together by that car accident and the presence and symbolism of dogs that are found throughout the film.

Interestingly enough, the rough translation of the film's title is "Love's a Bitch," a thematic thread that defines both the characters' relationships with their dogs (that are often treated better than their human counterparts) as well as significant human others.

The first such story, which is most likely to draw criticism and/or elicit queasiness in the easily disturbed, involves a character who enters his dog into illegal dogfights so that he can make enough money to run off with his emotionally and physically abused sister-in-law. Those fight sequences, while not seen for any individually long period of time, are rather bloody, and the sight of the limp and blood-soaked canines might be too much for some to take.

Yet, the tale of Octavio and Susana, solidly played by Gael García Bernal (in his first feature film) and Vanessa Bauche ("Un Embrujos," "Stabat Mater"), is told so well and such dogfights are so integral to how all three stories play out that the material never comes off as sensationalistic (and the Humane Society of the U.S. has been assured that no animals were harmed in the making of the film).

The second story offers the most symbolic canine bit, where a beautiful model's dog ends up trapped and/or hiding under her polished wood floors after jumping through a small hole. When she's in a bad car accident and her looks are then shot for modeling work, the dog becomes symbolic of those who don't look beyond, or in this case, below superficial beauty.

The most amusing of the three stories - albeit in a very dry fashion - the segment also contains strong performances from Goya Toledo ("Makaria," "Diario de un Volador") as the "damaged" woman and Álvaro Guerrero ("Esmeralda Comes by Night," "The Come-On") as her lover who gives up his wife and kids for the model's beauty, only to find it now dashed. It's a point that's driven home by a billboard outside their apartment that sports and constantly reminds both of the model's formerly shapely and flawless legs.

Many dogs make up the third story where Emilio Echevarría ("Bordano La Frontera," "Los Pasos de Ana") portrays a man who seems to be a derelict and lives with many canines as his friends and family, but longs to reconnect with his now adult daughter that he gave up for a rather unique career. While all of the stories are interesting and well told, this one is the most intriguing, mostly because of Echevarría's mesmerizing performance as a man who turns out to be something completely different than one's initial observation of him.

Somewhat akin to Samuel L. Jackson's character and performance in "Pulp Fiction," Echevarría creates a character who wouldn't normally seem to engage our interest, but thanks to his perfectly honed performance, that's exactly what happens.

It's a testament to Iñárritu's storytelling abilities, as well as the many strong performances that we end up completely fascinated with and at least partially caring about characters that otherwise would be decidedly less than sympathetic in any other situation. Add in the nonlinear plot and you have one terrific piece of filmmaking. While probably not for everyone's tastes, the film should appeal to those who enjoyed "Pulp Fiction" and other edgy, but well-made productions. "Amores Perros" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed April 16, 2001/ Posted April 27, 2001

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