Given the choice, Alejandro González Iñárritu would have picked music over film as his preferred outlet of artistic expression. This truth, though surprising coming from one of the world’s most acclaimed directors, explains in part his storytelling sensibilities and his exhaustive attentiveness to technical and narrative minutiae — a trait many of his longtime colleagues praise for the results it yields on screen.
“I like music more than I like cinema, I must admit,” the Mexican auteur says by phone from a ranch near Mexico City. “Unfortunately I have a great ear but very clumsy hands. I’m a rather bad amateur enthusiast when it comes to playing music.”
From those failed aspirations, cinema gained an ambitious visionary whose boundary-pushing works like “The Revenant,” “Birdman” and “Babel” have cemented Iñárritu’s place among the greats. But before sweeping Hollywood awards and working with international stars, the multi-Oscar-winning director launched his career in 2000 with a Mexican masterpiece, “Amores Perros.”
Made at a time when the country’s filmic output was scarce, this classic of the Nuevo Cine Mexicano — a period considered the rebirth of Mexican cinema following an extensive barren era — endures two decades on. With a triptych structure navigating Mexico City’s contrasting social strata via multiple characters, “Amores Perros” sunk its sharp dramatic teeth into audiences and critics alike, and singlehandedly uplifted a group of actors and artisans who today are among Latin America’s most successful creators.
This week, the Criterion Collection released a 4K digital restoration of “Amores Perros” on Blu-ray and DVD. The special edition, approved and supervised by Iñárritu and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, implicitly commemorates the 20th anniversary of the director’s feature film debut. “Those who already know it,” Iñárritu says, “are going to rediscover it in a new way, and those who don’t, the new generations of Latinos, are going to have a great surprise.”
Film critic Justin Chang finds passion, insult comedy and a search for meaning in two restored gems: Béla Tarr’s ‘Damnation’ and Manoel de Oliveira’s ‘Francisca.’
Iñárritu’s trajectory toward film didn’t begin until he was a young adult. “Sometimes I hear other directors tell the same story: ‘When I was 8 years old my dad gave me a Super-8 camera and I started making movies.’ I’m envious that they knew what they wanted to be since they were kids,” he candidly notes.
In his early 20s, after realizing his limited musical skill, he was drawn to the idea of making movies. Back then, however, taking the step from spectator to moviemaker — without the advantages of today’s digital tools — was a trickier endeavor. So he took a tangential professional turn and started working in radio.
“I grew up with his voice through everything he did at WFM,” recalls actor Gael García Bernal about Iñárritu’s indelible stint as a radio DJ throughout the 1980s. “He introduced a new rhythm to the radio in Mexico when I was a kid.” Despite his fan base, after a few years, Iñárritu’s dormant calling dragged him off the airwaves.
“I left radio at a time when the station was very successful and I was the director,” Iñárritu says, “but I wanted to make films. I didn’t know how to get there but my mind was very focused on achieving that.”
He studied theater under Ludwik Margules, a renowned Mexican thespian, for three years, then with friends started his own production company, Zeta Films, where he wrote, directed, produced and edited commercials for countless brands. Prieto joined the journey at this stage and recognized Iñárritu’s promise right away.
The hands-on training was bliss for the self-taught filmmaker, who doesn’t believe in film schools — an opinion that has often gotten him in trouble. “You can’t teach or learn cinema, you have to make it. Like a poet, you can study literature and read, but the poet is born a poet. I was born with this,” he asserts. “Whether I had studied it or not, it was my destiny and I liked it.”
In 1995 Iñárritu wrote and directed his first television pilot. A year later, he met novelist and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga through his late friend and collaborator Pelayo Gutierrez. Soon after, the writing process for “Amores Perros” began. Iñarritu would go on to direct three more projects with Arriaga as writer.
2020 decimated our cultural and entertainment institutions. Artists have readjusted their ways of working. Many wonder if they can continue their craft even after the pandemic. Yet we’ve also seen resilience and creativity.
Originally titled “Perro negro, perro blanco,” Arriaga’s screenplay was inspired by people he knew in his neighborhood and personal events, particularly a 1985 car crash he survived. The accident gave the movie not only its stunning opening but a structure that narrates what happens before, during and after the incident. Cofi, the central dog, was based on Arriaga’s own pet; the segment about a married man and a model came from a friend, while El Chivo evoked a man he remembered from his childhood. “I tried to write a story that was as human as possible, with the sharpest contradictions, and procured creating loathsome characters that were interesting for the audience,” Arriaga says.
At the time, when Mexico produced just a handful of feature films per year, only seasoned directors with a track record received a government subsidy to finance production. Iñarritu instead turned to AltaVista, a private company starting out in the entertainment business, which agreed to coproduce “Amores Perros” with a $2 million budget, an unheard-of amount for a Mexican production at the time.
When the final cost came in closer to $2.4 million, Iñarritu and his partner, Raúl Olvera, were forced to forfeit any hopes of making a profit, and invested their own cash to complete the movie.
Performers with varying degrees of film acting experience comprised the large ensemble. Iñárritu’s only stipulation to casting director Manuel Teil was that all had to have theatrical training. With a dozen movies and as many plays to her name, actress Vanessa Bauche, then in her mid-20s, was the movie’s most seasoned performer.
She played Susana, a teenage mother living with the family of her husband and being aggressively courted by her — brother-in-law, García Bernal’s character, Octavio. “The hardest part was to construct a character who was younger than me at the time, with such fragility, vulnerability and loneliness,” she says.
For Bauche, also a fierce activist fighting violence against women, “Amores Perros” has taken on added meaning today. “The loves that are portrayed in the film are more about desire, with competition between alpha males. But in truth,” she notes, “that has nothing to do with actual love. That’s why I feel that the film has become even more relevant than 20 years ago, probably because now we can talk about these issues in relation to gender, gender perspective, new masculinities in Mexico.”
García Bernal, today one of the most sought-after actors of his generation, was first spotted by Iñárritu as a 15-year-old in Antonio Urrutia’s Oscar-nominated short film “De Tripas Corazón.” It’s the reason Iñárritu cast the fresh-faced teen in one of his commercials, and eventually in “Amores Perros.”
“He was a very handsome kid with a deep gaze and very rare, almost purple, luminous eyes. He was very attractive but not in the superficial way that a model would be. To me, his face looked like that of a young wolf or like a young Mexican Alain Delon,” says Iñárritu.
“Back then I was going to high school in Mexico City and I would sometimes work in theater. I was in a moment where I didn’t know if I was going to dedicate to acting or not,” García Bernal says. He’d planned to study philosophy at UNAM but there was a strike, so he went to London to study acting until the university resumed operations.
While García Bernal was in London, Iñárritu sent him the script for “Amores Perros,” offering him the part of Octavio, a young man from a marginalized Mexico City neighborhood making money from dogfights. But though García Bernal was eager to participate, his British school didn’t allow students to work. He’d have to do the film in secret. His scenes were scheduled around his spring break, but when Iñárritu informed him they’d need him in Mexico for an extra week, the adolescent planned the most important lie of his life.
“I said, ‘OK, then let’s invent an illness. We’ll ask a doctor to make a fake medical note and I’ll take that to school and hopefully with that there’s no problem.’ We went with a friend who was a doctor in Mexico and told him, ‘Please do it for the love of cinema. Please help us out.’ He did. I tell this story now, but for about 13 years I was drowning in guilt for having done that. And also, you are never supposed to talk about when you cheat, but it’s fun to think that in those days you could do things like that. My classmates from school even sent me postcards telling me to get better soon. I think that’s what killed me. I thought, ‘Such corruption. I’m horrible.’” That falsehood ultimately made his future.
To win the role of an economically deprived single mother in a crime-ridden neighborhood, Adriana Barraza channeled the rage she imagined for a woman in her character’s circumstances and cleaned an imaginary kitchen during her audition. Her convincing portrayal, imbuing emotion into a mundane task, got her the part. The small part eventually led to a more prominent role in Iñarritu’s 2006 film “Babel,” for which she earned a Oscar nomination as supporting actress.
But on the “Amores Perros” set, she couldn’t grasp his methodology at first. “I thought he didn’t like my acting. For example, when my character, Conchita, has to walk to the room to knock and tell Gael and Vanessa to get out — that they shouldn’t be together there. It was a small scene, but we must have done it about 15 times. Each time he asks for something different. He would tell me, ‘It’s great that way, but now add this.’”
Barraza later realized that it wasn’t that he was displeased with her work but that he was adding complexity to the part with each take by asking her to infuse the scene with a slightly different emotion (anger + resentment + fear). Rather than a simplistic understanding of why a character does something a certain way, the layers express a richer emotional state.
“The more he asks you to add elements to the performance, the deeper you go, the closer you get to a real human being,” she explains. “I understood that with Alejandro. It’s all thanks to him. He gave me so much. Now I teach this in my acting classes.”
According to Barraza, the magic is in how Iñárritu removes all the tools actors are used to working with. In the repetition and the subtle changes, he de-dramatizes their actions, getting closer to a believable behavior.
“I really enjoy working with actors because I deeply respect what they do, and I know what they do,” Iñárritu says. “Just like the violinist has a violin and the pianist a piano, the actors have their body — that’s their instrument. They share their emotions bravely with a series of technical aspects like learning dialogue lines. For the work of a great actor is a great mystery.”
“He is a director who focuses on the details of each character. He dedicates the time to each of them to create them. It’s a gift to be able to work that way,” says Goya Toledo, the Spanish actress who plays Valeria, a model who loses a leg in the car crash.
Iñárritu had decided to make the character of Valeria a foreigner in Mexico to heighten her isolation and did a thorough search for the ideal actress until he saw Toledo’s photograph. But she was hesitant to take on the job. “At the time I had just finished school and had made my first movie,” she recalls, “so I was being very cautious with my career. Perhaps because of my physical appearance but people would always think I was a model. Thank goodness I made the right decision and said yes.”
In addition to learning how to use a wheelchair and tap into the pain of Valeria, Toledo also had to overcome a crippling phobia toward dogs. Her part required her to handle a small one, named Richie in the film, for many of her scenes. She is now a happy dog owner.
Canine costars were evidently important. Dog trainer Larry Casanova found the ones who follow Emilio Echeverria’s character, El Chivo, on the street and trained them for eight months before shooting began. The actor also did his part to bring realism to the role. “When El Chivo walks in the movie, the dogs walk next to him, and that’s not pretend,” Iñarritu says. “They did develop a relationship with him. He would feed them. The dogs felt that and that’s why those interactions are so moving and real.“
Other good ideas to work with the dogs, Prieto notes, included the use of an almost invisible muzzle for the fighting scenes. Given the motion blur, the viewer doesn’t notice them, and they prevented the animals from biting each other.
Early on, Iñárritu and Prieto discussed their use of a handheld camera. The director was concerned it would cheapen the film or look generic. “It’s already overdone, since Cassavetes, but it’s about how you use it,” Iñárritu says. “In our case, the camera breathes with the actors, which makes a big difference. With the camera, Rodrigo caressed the actors and navigated with them emotionally. That was my instruction.”
Both also sought to depart from the polished aesthetic of most Mexican films then. They wanted a harsher appearance. “We settled on bleach bypass. That was an important part of the look of the film,” Prieto says, “plus, different film stocks with different types of grain structures.”
For the Criterion release, the duo have restored the original colors as they were intended to project from the negative. The grain and the extreme contrast of the bleach bypass process gave the movie a unique vibration that reflects the energy pulsating through a metropolis like Mexico City. ”We weren’t just trying to reproduce what it actually looks like,” the cinematographer adds. “We wanted to reproduce what it feels like.”
For the car crash, the drama’s major set piece, Prieto, now an Oscar-nominated DP, remembers the controlled chaos of shooting with nine cameras, one of which he operated. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so we only had one take to get it.”
None of the actors were physically inside the cars during the actual crash, yet the tension arose from how quickly the sun was setting and collateral damage to cars parked nearby. Like every scene in “Amores Perros,” this dangerous ordeal was executed on location.
With principal photography wrapped, Iñárritu locked himself in his home for nine months to edit the film, using Ry Cooder’s soundtrack for Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas” as a temp track. During that period of peak concentration, fellow directors Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro provided feedback on the cuts. Del Toro, whom Iñárritu met through a mutual friend, came to stay with the director for three days to advise him and claims he helped Iñárritu cut a chunk of the running time. Though immensely thankful for his support, Iñarritu refutes that. “I say it was like six or seven minutes, but they were vital.”
Not long after, Lynn Fainchtein, the movie’s music supervisor and Iñárritu’s friend, gave him a copy of the album “Ronroco” by Argentine musician Gustavo Santaolalla.” Impressed, Iñárritu asked the composer to score his debut. The composer — also a producer and record label owner — planned to decline without having read the script or seen a cut, on the basis of having too much on his plate. But a gut feeling kicked in.
“I woke up in the middle of the night,” Santaolalla says. “I sat on my bed and I thought, ‘What if this guy is a genius? What if the movie is amazing and I said no without even having looked at the script?’” He got up the next morning and let Iñárritu know that if he came to Los Angeles to show him the movie, he would consider it.
Armed with a VHS, the director came to meet him. As soon as the car crash sequence ended, Santaolalla was sold. His alluring score, recorded at his Echo Park studio, was the first to feature the ronroco guitar, an instrument that would become the signature of the Oscar-winning composer, as well as his use of silence and unconventional sounds.
“In ‘Amores Perros’ I was able to use the concept of the wrong note, a dissonance — they are two notes that are almost an octave apart but not exactly — always guided by Alejandro’s hand,” Santaolalla says. His work for Iñárritu marked his entry into the film industry; his subsequent movies include “The Motorcycle Diaries” and “Brokeback Mountain.”
Paired with Santaolalla’s pieces is a soundtrack nearly as iconic as the movie. Comprised of both original tracks and songs Iñárritu handpicked, the double album exemplifies his deep knowledge and relationships in the music scene. Julieta Venegas, Nacha Pop and even Celia Cruz are included. “The album itself remains relevant, and it captures that time when these artists who are now legends were young up-and-comers. Something as ambitious for a movie soundtrack hadn’t been done in Mexico until then,” noted Iñárritu.
In addition, Iñárritu also directed two music videos for songs written for the movie, the only music videos he’s ever helmed: “De Perros Amores” by Control Machete and Ely Guerra and “Aviéntame” by Cafe Tacvba, which is an uninterrupted long take inside Susana and Ramiro’s room seen in the movie. He believes that brief exercise was the inception of “Birdman.” The clips are included in the Criterion disc. Inevitably, Iñárritu’s identity as a musicphile permeates his work, perhaps never again as intensely as it did in “Amores Perros.”
“He has a great ear. If you pay attention, his films are music sheets put in front of a camera. They have a certain musicality. Sound and score are fundamental in his work,” says Bauche, who is the daughter of musician Tito Bauche. “The screenplays are music sheets and the way he shoots has an orchestral feeling. He puts on symphonic productions, like a cinematic opera.”
Finally, many rolls of grainy film stock, loud barking, fake blood, raw rehearsals, endless takes and an incredible traffic collision re-creation later, on May 14, 2000, “Amores Perros” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the Critics’ Week sidebar. Showered in applause and admiration, Iñárritu thought it was possible that every movie at Cannes enjoyed the same reception. He had never attended a film festival before. But when the film won the Critics Week prize, the team realized they had accomplished something momentous.
Months later, Iñárritu and Prieto were on the side of the road setting up a camera to shoot yet another commercial when a call came in to let them know “Amores Perros” had been nominated for the foreign-language film Oscar, the first for Mexico in 25 years. The film would go on to win the BAFTA for foreign film. Somehow, they had managed to become both a box office hit in Mexico, an astounding feat for a local production, and a phenomenon abroad.
Two subsequent films, “21 Grams” (2003) and “Babel” (2006), would complete Iñárritu and Arriaga’s “Death Trilogy,” which began with “Amores Perros.” Both films garnered Oscar attention, with two nominations for “21 Grams” and seven for “Babel,” including Iñárritu’s first Academy Award nominations for director and best picture. “Babel” also won the Golden Globe for best drama motion picture. And Iñárritu would go on to win back-to-back Oscars for directing “Birdman” and “The Revenant.”
All these years later, however, “Amores Perros” retains a searing quality in its depiction of the human condition. Three unflinchingly brutal and poetically devastating stories tied to a tragic and serendipitous event continue to set screens ablaze.
“It’s a movie that looks at the characters with a multidimensional gaze,” Iñárritu says. “Each of them belongs to a distinct class stratum in Mexico. This triptych of stories was a mosaic that included, not everything, but a great part of a society as complex as ours. That has remained faithful to what we still are.”
The once hopeful musician rightly turned director concludes: “Many things have not only evolved but have devolved. There are many of these realities that are still happening today with even more intensity than before. In that sense the film has maintained its relevance, because it documented this reality.”
The complete guide to home viewing
Get Screen Gab for weekly recommendations, analysis, interviews and irreverent discussion of the TV and streaming movies everyone’s talking about.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.