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A Fierce Love of Life in a Dog-Eat-Dog World

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Amores Perros” is in every way a major work, yet it is so automatically controversial in one crucial aspect that this must be dealt with before the film can be considered as a whole.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez In~arritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga explore a cross-section of contemporary Mexico City society through the way humans treat animals, dogs in particular. That whether people abuse dogs or coddle them can reveal a great deal about the way they treat other human beings is surely undeniable. The way people treat dogs can also reveal grim economic realities. In short, how better to illuminate the dehumanizing quality of so much of modern life than to depict cruelty to animals?

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 18, 2001 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 18, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Running time--The review of “Amores Perros” in Friday’s Calendar included an incorrect running time for the film. The correct time is 2 hours, 33 minutes.

“Amores Perros” goes way beyond social commentary, as corrosive as it is in this instance, to spin a timeless, universal tale of interlocking fate involving love, tragedy and redemption. But its graphic yet not exploitative depiction of cruelty to dogs will surely prove too intense for some audiences--even though they’ve been assured that no animal was harmed in the making of this film, which both Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for best foreign-language film. Indeed, the filmmakers surely must have been drawn to the metaphorical power of cruelty to dogs because people tend to get upset lots quicker about the mistreatment of animals, considering them defenseless creatures, than about the abuse of humans.

“Amores Perros” opens with a shot of a large dog, bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound, stretched out on the back seat of a car speeding through Mexico City streets. A truck, from which shots are being fired, is in hot pursuit. When the car narrowly misses colliding with an immense van, the car’s driver, Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal), breathes a momentary sigh of relief only to smash into another car. In this bravura opening, staged with the terrifying velocity in which such collisions occur in real life and expressed in a flourish of pan shots and quick cuts, the viewer is thrust backward in time, commencing the first of the film’s three interlinking episodes, “Octavio and Susana.” Octavio is a sweet-natured yet streetwise youth who is falling in love with his sister-in-law Susana (Vanessa Bauche). Octavio’s brother Ramiro (Marco Perez) is a hot-tempered wife-beater, a convenience store cashier as combustible as nitroglycerin and about to embark on a reckless get-rich-quick scheme.

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In the meantime, Susana is devastated to discover she is pregnant with her second child at a time when she’s thinking of how she can leave Ramiro. Octavio has just discovered his dog Cofi has killer instincts, so it seems obvious to him to enter Cofi in a series of dogfights, winning enough money for Susana to have an abortion and run off with him and her child to begin a new life in Ciudad Juarez. The film’s opening suggests that Octavio’s plan went terribly awry--but that doesn’t mean that Octavio’s story is over. One of the most inspired, enriching aspects of Arriaga’s script is that within its three-episode structure, it keeps track of what’s happening to the key figures in other chapters.

We return to the collision and the protagonists of the next episode, “Daniel and Valeria.” Trapped in the car struck by Octavio is Valeria (Goya Toledo), who had been experiencing a period of great personal and professional happiness. She’s the celebrity model of the moment, and her lover, Daniel (Alvaro Guerrero), a middle-aged magazine editor, has at last separated from his wife. Valeria has been recuperating from a fall in which she put her foot through a weak spot in the apartment floor, and then her beloved poodle, Richie, has slipped through the same hole in the floor into a crawl space and won’t come out. As other commentators have noted, the filmmakers could well be paying homage to Luis Bun~uel, “Tristana” in particular, as this sequence unfolds with pitch-dark humor as two heretofore fortunate and privileged people have been protected from the shallowness of their feelings for each other.

Returning once again to the collision, the film begins the final episode, “El Chivo and Maru.” El Chivo (Emilio Echevarria) is a handsome but seedy middle-aged man who wears shoddy clothes, his full beard and matted long hair a steely gray. He witnesses the accident and rescues Cofi from the back seat of Octavio’s car, carrying him home to his ramshackle quarters in a warehouse, where he has given shelter and care to at least half a dozen stray dogs. Without giving too much away about El Chivo, the film’s central figure and moral compass, it can be said that right away it’s clear he is man of intelligence and sophistication despite his derelict appearance--a man who has been shorn from his past life by some cataclysmic event. Maru, in fact, is the name of the daughter who has never known him and who believes he died long ago.

Every moment in “Amores Perros,” with its dynamic, no-holds-barred camera work by Rodrigo Prieto, seethes with vitality and a passion for life even at its harshest and bleakest. It’s a film of high energy, punctuated by rock music and a dark wit, yet it is capable of profound reflection and tragic irony. It is fully realized in all ways, ablaze with a raft of vital portrayals and rich in meaning and implication. “Amores Perros” relentlessly depicts life in all its savagery and folly, yet holds out the eternal possibility of personal redemption.

* MPAA-rated: R, for violence/gore, language and sexuality. Times guidelines: Graphic depiction of dogfights and other instances of cruelty to dogs; some strong language, brief sexuality.

‘Amores Perros’

Emilio Echevarria: El Chivo

Gael Garcia Bernal: Octavio

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Vanessa Bauche: Susana

Goya Toledo: Valeria

Alvaro Guerrero: Daniel[

A Lions Gate Films presentation. Director-producer Alejandro Gonzalez In~arritu. Executive producers Francisco Gonzalez Compean. Screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. Musical supervisor Lynn Fainchtein. Costumes Gabriela Diaque. Production designer Brigitte Broch. Set decorator Julieta Alvarez. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

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