Warning: Spoilers Ahead
It seems pretty agreeable at this point to say that Alejandro González Iñárritu has earned the title of a great director. However, most great directors didn’t always start out with that stature, as they took their time getting to a certain point of prestige and acclaim. They typically begin with a good film or two that show promise, then crescendo to a level of consistent high quality. For example, take Martin Scorsese, who started out with flawed but ambitious films in Who’s That Knocking At My Door and Boxcar Bertha, but didn’t necessarily become the Scorsese we hold in such high regard until Mean Streets. Iñárittu stands as the rare filmmaker to start out with an undeniable bang, and then continue on that level of filmmaking for his entire working career thus far, arguably getting better with each film. Fifteen years ago, he released his first feature with Amores perros, a film that to this day stands as a monumental debut.
Amores perros follows three individuals whose lives are affected by a fateful car crash — beautiful model Valeria (Goya Toledo), young dog-fighter Octavio (Gael García Bernal) and homeless assassin Chivo (Emilio Echevarría). The English language translation for the title is “Love’s a Bitch,” quite appropriate as each story follows a crescendo of love and the inevitable disillusion of that love. Octavio loves Susana, the pregnant wife of his violent older brother Ramiro. Valeria is having an affair with the married magazine publisher Daniel, who leaves his family to be with her. Chivo doesn’t have the same sense of romance in his story, but instead is looking to reconnect with his estranged daughter, who was raised believing he was dead.
So many seeds of what makes Iñárritu a master filmmaker had already been harvested in Amores perros. He, with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, had already mastered a sense of naturalism in their camera work. The camera gravitates around these characters, a sort of dance of movements, dictated by whomever Iñárritu is following. Only a handful of directors and cinematographers seem to have a grip on how to use handheld camera work to cinematically heighten emotion and character, with Iñárritu and Prieto being pioneers of the technique. Consider the stunning one-take sequence where Octavio leaves the dog-fight with his wounded dog Cofi, sets him in the car, heads back inside to stab the opponent (who had shot Cofi) and runs back out to escape. It’s an understated manner that captures the tension of the moment. The frenetic camera work and cutting that follows provides an immediacy of danger during the car chase. Iñárritu knows how to pace his films, and Amores perros has seamless editing. There’s a rhythmic flow between the passages of these three characters that culminates in visual poetry in how these stories intertwine. Characters, even minor ones, cross paths through each storyline, affecting each other in ways only known to the audience. Amores perros clocks in at 150 minutes, yet not a single frame feels unnecessary.
One storytelling aspect of Iñárritu’s career that began with Amores perros is the ensemble narrative in which multiple characters are linked through one shocking act. 21 Grams and Babel would also utilize this narrative structure, and a good portion of this can be attributed to the screenwriting by Guillermo Arriaga, who served as a creative partner to Iñárritu through his first three films. After Babel, Iñárritu would abandon this storytelling structure, but he would only grow as a filmmaker rather than backslide without the familiar story structure.
As a filmmaker, Iñárritu seems to be intrigued most of all by suffering and the personal growth it allows. In each of his films, he puts his characters through extreme and seemingly endless suffering and trial, but he usually allows room for hope to grow near the end. Riggan Thomson learned to fly in Birdman, Uxbal finds peace in a sort of afterlife with his father in Biutiful. There is room for healing for the characters in 21 Grams and Babel. It’s difficult to say that there is hope for Octavio as he waits alone at the bus station, or for Daniel and Valeria as they confront the likely superficial nature of their relationship, but it seems that there may be some sort of catharsis for Chivo.
Chivo serves as the heart and soul of Amores perros, personifying Iñárritu’s examination of suffering and hope, played with a lifetime of regret and weariness in a performance beyond Oscar-worthy by Emilio Echavarría. Chivo surrounds himself with stray dogs that he’s taken in to substitute the loss of his human family. One of the film’s most tender moments comes when Chivo takes some photos of himself in a photobooth and transposes his face onto a photograph with his family. Later, he performs this act once more after cleaning himself up and leaves both the photograph and a heart-wrenching voicemail for his daughter. In the fateful car crash that links each tale, Chivo is a witness. Afterwards, he takes in Octavio’s dog Cofi and rehabilitates the animal. Unfortunately, he horrifically discovers that Cofi’s a fighting dog when the animal kills all of his owner’s dogs. He has lost his biological family, and now has lost the family he created for himself. Yet Chivo continues on, vowing to take care of Cofi no matter what. The final shot is one that speaks to the simple poetic power of the moving image. Chivo walks across a desolate, dried up landscape — a literal manifestation of his spiritual state. But he’s not alone as Cofi trots beside him, and this is where Iñárritu leaves room for hope.
Amores perros remains a masterful work of cinema, made even more impressive by the fact that it was Iñárritu’s first film. His camera work married the cinematic and the natural, his performances top notch, and his examination of suffering handled with a veteran’s maturity. But to say that this film, as incredible as it is, isn’t even Inarritu’s best film is a testament to the high quality of his work. Amores perros is one hell of a first film, but Iñárritu would arguably only get better.
Dylan Moses Griffin has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.