Not “A Dog’s Life.”
Amores Perros is a spellbinding Mexican film drama that opened in 2000 to wide critical acclaim. It was the Best Feature Film winner at the American Film Institute Film Festival and was both a Golden Globe and Academy Award nominee as Best Foreign Language Film of the year. Lions Gate Home Entertainment (distributed by Studio Home Entertainment) has now released the film on DVD with some nice supplementary features
Three stories intersect during and are critically influenced by a violent car crash that occurs on the streets of Mexico City.
Story 1: A young man falls in love with his brother’s wife and gets involved in the world of dog fighting in order to raise money so he can go away with her.
Story 2: A magazine editor leaves his wife for a young model but tragedy brings incredible stress to their relationship.
Story 3: A street derelict who kills on contract for a living tries to come to terms with a past that saw him abandon his wife and daughter to become a revolutionary.
It’s always a pleasure to come across a film you’ve never seen before and find that it’s a real gem. Such is Amores Perros, the first film from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu. In flavour and structure, the film owes some gratitude to Quentin Tarantino, but Iñárritu brings his own ability to draw the audience deeply into the lives of his characters, many of whom are working or middle class people that many film-goers can relate to. In this sense, his film is a richer experience than either Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. The film’s writer, Guillermo Arriaga Jordan, indicates in the audio commentary included on the DVD his interest in the work of William Faulkner and one can see that part of Amores Perros‘s attention to character detail reflects that interest too.
One of the best things about this film is the interweaving of the three stories, all of which are linked by the car crash. As the film progresses, we see this crash occur several times and each time, we know a little more about why it happens and who’s involved. Chance glimpses of people that we get during the first or second occurrence suddenly take on new meaning the next time, for by then we’ve already met those individuals under different circumstances and feel we’ve got an investment in their lives ourselves. It’s one of the pleasures of the film to be to see one of those characters during the crash sequence and then smile mentally to ourselves as we think about what we’ve learned that brings that character to the site compared to the unknown that the person was on the first go round.
The English translation of the film title is “Love’s a Bitch,” which offers a neat play on words given the prominent role of dogs in this film of three love stories. A dog or dogs are key ingredients of each of the stories that we experience and one particular dog actually is prominent in two of the stories. None of the dogs are things of beauty in themselves, but each is a vital part of its owner’s life and identity. As the owners suffer, so do the dogs. None of the characters in the film are able to avoid the hardships that fate has in store for them, and certainly none of the dogs are spared either. Dog life seems cheap in Mexico City; after all, in the questionable sport of dog fighting, one dog wins and one dog dies. It’s not even safe for the pampered pooches of the more well-to-do, though. If a dog gets trapped in the maze of rafters separating an apartment floor from the ceiling of the apartment below, then it has hungry rats to contend with.
One of the film’s chief virtues is the fine ensemble cast. Most of the actors are relatively unknown in film outside Mexico. All the players are worth noting, but I will single out one for special attention — Emilio Echevarria, who plays “el chivo.” This is a difficult role, for while this ex-revolutionary, now street scavenger and sometime contract killer, has the surface appearance of a panhandler, we must not be allowed to forget his past which involved a life of some privilege. Whatever decisions this man made in the past, for right or wrong, there is still intelligence and ability buried beneath the grime and dishevelment. Echevarria is able to convey all of these traits so convincingly that we can believe equally both in el chivo’s past and present, and understand therefore that any sort of future is a possibility for him.
Amores Perros has been released on DVD by Lions Gate Home Entertainment in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. For the most part, the picture is bright and clear with reasonable contrast, but darker sequences suffer from excessive noise with attendant loss of shadow detail. Given the nature of the film, a somewhat grainy, gritty look was intentionally achieved for some of the sequences. As a consequence, this film is never going to look as crisp as many other contemporary releases.
The primary sound track is a Spanish language one in Dolby Digital 5.1. This is a good audio mix with some aggressive use of the surrounds especially for the car crash that is repeated several times. It also shines in the dog-fighting sequences (which emphasize sound to convey the fights rather than showing any detail of what’s going on). Dialogue appears to be reasonably clear, although not knowing Spanish, I couldn’t objectively judge how good a job has been done. The English sub-titling conveys the story well. Spanish and French subtitles are also included as is a French Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track.
The disc’s special features begin with an audio commentary with both the director and writer participating. It’s in Spanish with English subtitles. This is quite an informative effort with a lot of information being imparted on casting, locations, camera angles, lighting, and so on. Both speakers are quite forthcoming on their motivations, making it clear when they have been inspired by others or taking credit themselves when appropriate. We also hear a number of interesting anecdotes, including how the crew was held-up at gunpoint while looking for locations. The gang that did so was later used as a source of extras for some of the dog-fighting sequences. The commentary also extends to a 15-minute sequence of approximately a dozen deleted scenes including a slightly altered ending. It sounds as though the editing process on the film was a difficult one and some of these scenes were omitted only after much soul searching.
Three production featurettes are included. The longest one is a general making-of effort that is average at best. The two shorter ones are more informative. One focuses on the dogs of the film — where they came from, their experience, and how they were treated (the old proviso “no animals were harmed in the making-of this film” has added meaning for this picture). The other provides some detail on the car-crash sequence.
Rounding out the disc are three music videos of generally questionable merit and unclear connection to the film. The packaging states that there’s a trailer but I couldn’t find it.
There is no doubt that this can be a tough film to watch at times. The dog-fighting sequences are done with some intensity and even though care has been taken to not show any graphic exchanges, the sound effects are realistic and some shots of the aftermath of fights are a little gory.
At least two of the three stories presented could be considered to be downers, so if you’re looking for a feel-good experience only, I’d look elsewhere.
Amores Perros is a compelling film that stylishly intertwines three stories that hinge on a violent car crash. Long, but hard to take one’s eyes off it, this debut effort by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu is highly recommended. Lions Gate’s DVD is a pretty good effort that particularly shines on the audio side and in its fine director/writer commentary.