Published May 01, 2001A highly successful advertising director, Alejandra Gonzalez Iñarritu certainly shows off his visual chops in this, his first feature. "Amores Perros" ("Love's a Bitch") opens with a high speed chase and devastating car crash at the intersection of several lives. Three stories then retrace the paths of the various characters to (and beyond) the shattering event. The stories seek to span the diversity of Mexico City's society: a supermodel, the operator of a dog-fighting ring, a derelict ex-professor-ex-guerrilla, the loutish young father who works the cash in one drug store when he isn't robbing others. Love and dogs run through each story line, and both receive a fair battering in the process.
Iñarritu was the subject of a puff profile in "The New York Times Magazine" last month, according to which "Amores Perros" heralded little less than the dawn of a new age in Latin American cinema. Such advance adulation clearly set some critics salivating in gleeful anticipation - of hailing the new hero or taking him down a few pegs. And indeed the reception in the States (where the film has been open a few weeks) has been polarised. Slick camera work, a non-linear narrative approach, and more than a little violence? Must be derivative of Tarantino! (And a background in advertising? Oh dear.) If this line is undeserved, so are the raves. Iñarritu and writer Guillermo Arriage Jordan (and indeed, most of the dogs in the film) have more on their minds than, say, Guy Ritchie. "Amores Perros" is neither glib nor exploitative though, in the context of its makers' agenda, it comes off as unfulfilled if not shallow.
The pacing of the film is erratic the second story in particular seems to suck all the energy out of the picture but its disappointments are chiefly intellectual. The director professes a desire to present a portrait of contemporary Mexico City in its sociological complexity, perhaps as an organism itself (he refers to the place as an anthropological experiment in extreme living conditions). This is an eminently laudable goal, especially given how various locales are stereotyped in our cinemas, both in Hollywood's depiction of them, or via the foreign films that make it into distribution. Consider, for example, how in the past decade films such as "Hate" or "The Dreamlife of Angels" have enriched a French cinema dominated for too long by period pieces or bourgeois bed-hopping, thereby giving North American art house audiences a few more windows into the social fissures shaping modern France. Such perspectives are surely needed on Latin America: if there's more to the region than drugs and dumbed-down Magic Realism, we (usually) aren't seeing it in the theatres.
But for all its good intentions (some might say pretensions), "Amores Perros" only skims the surface of its setting, another lopsided contest in style v. substance. Strangely, one doesn't leave it with a definite sense of place (in contrast, say, to John Sayles's superb, almost novelistic, evocation of corrupt urban New Jersey in "City of Hope"). Yet for all that the film doesn't live up to the expectations generated by its buzz, it ought to be seen: NAFTA hasn't done much to heighten Mexico's place on our cultural map, and, as we contemplate re-colonising the rest of the Americas in our happy free trade orbit, the least we can do is take every opportunity to consider the work coming from the South.