Pup Fiction

Film still for Pup Fiction

Amores perros is a provoking, incendiary new film from Mexico about city dwellers and their dogs. Edward Lawrenson introduces the film and Bernardo Pérez Soler interviews debut director Alejandro González

Near the end of the 154-minute running time of Alejandro González Iñárritu's exhilarating debut Amores perros, an old man, sitting by the side of the road, takes time out to look up at the sky. The character, El Chivo/The Goat (Emilio Echevarría), is an ex-revolutionary down on his luck who's been contracted to assassinate a businessman, and he's waiting beside a telegraph pole outside his target's office in Mexico City, staking things out. But for the moment, El Chivo looks up and squints, the sun darting behind the pole, then out again, its fresh light flickering on the old man's weathered face.

It's a masterful and exquisite moment - one that lets you catch your breath and reflect on the street-level urgency of the previous two hours. An ambitious multi-plotted portrait of overlapping lives in contemporary Mexico City, Amores perros rarely relaxes its grip. Its opening view of the city is as an accelerated blur, glimpsed from the window of a speeding car that's about to crash; its subsequent images are of a place always on the move, teeming with incident, where the collision of coincidence and the irruption of violence are ever present.

This opening car-crash set-piece is the film's pivotal plot point. Amores perros is divided into three sections, each devoted to otherwise unconnected characters whose lives are affected by the crash. Unemployed teenager Octavio (Gael García) heads up the first, alongside his brother Ramiro (Marco Pérez) and Ramiro's wife Susana (Vanessa Bauche). In part this episode plays out like a clammy domestic melodrama - in the cramped, overheated confines of their small family flat, Octavio falls in love with Susana and vows to take her away from her abusive husband. But in order to pay for this, he takes to entering his beloved Rottweiler Cofi in the illegal dogfights regularly organised by an underworld connection.

These sequences have already earned the film a degree of notoriety in the UK. A title card at the beginning might reassure us that no animals were harmed during the film's making, but the dogfights are still vivid, fierce affairs (though arguably it's the aftermath that's most telling - glimpses of the dead dogs, their coats glossy with blood, being dragged off like hulks of meat by their indifferent owners, or of those barely alive being splashed into action to fight again by handfuls of soapy, blood-red water).

But while these sequences are gruelling, they're not gratuitous. As in Robert Bresson's Au hasard Balthazhar, here animal suffering is an index of human cruelty. (The parallel is made explicit towards the end when two brothers determined to kill one another are chained to either side of a room and strain at their binds like dogs held in check before a fight.) Dogs get a rough deal in Amores perros: whereas the first section sees them tear at one another's throats in order to enrich their owners, the second features a pampered pet pooch Richie - belonging to Spanish model Valeria (Goya Toledo) - which disappears under the polished floorboards of its owner's new flat where it nearly starves to death while being gnawed at by rats. Like Octavio, Valeria is involved in the crash that opens the movie - and González Iñárritu charts her slow recovery in the flat her lover Daniel (Alvaro Guerrero) has bought her. If the first section unfurled at a fiery, breakneck pace, this one is more of a slowburner - although no less intense. A mocking echo of happier times, Richie can be heard yelping occasionally, scurrying underneath their feet as Daniel and Valeria attempt to figure out what went wrong between them. The segment is a piercing account of a relationship falling apart - and a painstaking exploration of the hold domestic spaces have over us - shot through with a line of dark absurdist humour that brings to mind Buñuel's treatise on bourgeois entrapment The Exterminating Angel, a late entry in the Spanish director's Mexican period.

A sprawling saga of lives in a violent urban environment, with flashes of self-conscious narrative (the film shuttles back and forth in time) and overlapping plotlines, Amores perros will inevitably invite comparisons with Quentin Tarantino's first two movies. In fact, González Iñárritu seems to be goading us to make them: in the opening scene, which takes place inside Octavio's car as it hurtles through the city, Octavio's friend attempts to stem the blood from a wound Cofi has just sustained much as Harvey Keitel extemporised first-aid on Tim Roth in the back of their getaway car in Reservoir Dogs; later there's a playful parody of the torture scene from that film. But if the comparison works, it's only superficially: Amores perros' moments of violence are forceful but fleeting (when El Chivo shoots dead a businessman in a restaurant, all we see is a trickle of blood bubbling and thickening on a hotplate), and despite the occasional reversal of the film's chronology, it's largely stylistically unaffected.

The final section follows El Chivo, who's been glimpsed throughout the first two episodes as an impassive witness to events. Living in a one-room squat and spending his days wandering the streets followed by the troupe of dogs he cares for, he seems to have retreated from the world some time ago. A former revolutionary, his idealism has long since flagged - when a corrupt police commander asks him why he doesn't wear his glasses any more, his resigned reply is: "If God wants me to see blurry, I'll see blurry". Concentrating on El Chivo's attempt to set up one last hit - and his efforts to find out more about the daughter who believes him dead - the film's final reel also catches up with Octavio, Ramiro and Susana. There's a courageously bleak edge to the turn of events ("To make God laugh, tell him your plans", Susana says of Octavio's hopes), and it's tempting to read a political critique underlying the harrowing portrait of a place that seems to drive its inhabitants to the edge of despair. González Iñárritu himself has stated that the film illustrates the legacy of 71 years of single-party rule (which ended in December 2000): a society where the chasm between rich and poor is ever-growing and crime seems the only means of subsistence for millions of people. Yet the film snatches hope where it can - and it's perhaps González Iñárritu's greatest achievement that, after all its grim stretches, Amores perros comes to a close with a note of muted optimism.

Bernardo Pérez Soler adds: With a long career in Mexican media behind him, the 37-year-old director was far from unknown in his home country when Amores perros premiered at Cannes 2000, winning the critics' week prize then being nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Foreign-Language Film and going on to be a big hit in Mexico itself. At the age of 23 Iñárritu was a disc jockey, producer and director at WFM, one of two rock radio stations that revolutionised Mexico City's youth culture in the mid and late 80s; in 1990 he left to take over the production of promotional spots for Mexico's largest television network. Shortly afterwards he founded Zeta Films, a hybrid of advertising agency and production company responsible for some of the most memorable commercials seen on Mexican television in the past decade. He has also directed Detrás del dinero/After the Money, a pilot for a series which even by his own admission was a failure: technically accomplished but bogged down by an overly loose plot.

Bernardo Pérez Soler: The screenplay for 'Amores perros' was the result of a three-year collaboration with novelist Guillermo Arriaga Jordán. You've said you have almost antagonistic views of the world, so what allowed you to establish a working relationship?

Alejandro González Iñárritu: Where we were in agreement was regarding the deficiencies of Mexican cinema. We loathe the government-financed movie-making that seems to operate by the maxim: "If nobody understands and nobody goes to see a movie, that must mean it's a masterpiece."Among Mexican film-makers claiming to make "art cinema" there seems to be no interest in allowing audiences to connect emotionally with what's happening on screen. So what got us started was that resentment, that anger. Our aim was to make movies that would admit different readings and reflections, rattling the audience while being entertaining.

How did the script for 'Amores perros' evolve?

At the beginning Guillermo talked to me about its basic structure - that it was about different characters coming into contact with each other through their dogs and through a car crash. I told him an anecdote about a friend's dog that died after getting trapped underneath the floorboards, which Guillermo then incorporated into the script. It took us the longest time to finish the first episode: practically a year. To begin with it was totally different: it had no brother, no sister-in-law, it was a very naive, romantic love story between Octavio and the girl next door. Over that first year this episode became much stronger. By contrast, the other two sections remained almost as they were conceived. So we spent the next two years editing the script. It was tough to slim it down; we got rid of about 40 pages. The hardest part, however, was managing to put the different chapters together with subtlety, so the hand of the writer and director go unnoticed.

You both spent your childhoods in working-class neighbourhoods of Mexico City. Did you have direct contact with dogfights during those years?

I think a movie like Amores perros could only have been conceived by someone who's lived this long in a city like the one we live in. As for dogs, Guillermo had a very fierce Rottweiler called Cofi, like the one in the movie, that also killed a fight dog in the street. But while we were both aware of clandestine dog-fighting, neither of us had ever been near any of it. So before the shooting I had to go along to a couple of fights to find out what they're like - who organises them, where they happen, what are the stakes, what language the participants use.

The critic Jonathan Romney has said that each of the stories in 'Amores perros' belongs to a different genre: the first is "hard, low-life realism", the second a "cruel moral tale of the unexpected", the third a psychological thriller. Was attaining this balance between different genres one of your aims?

Guillermo and I have discussed that. For him, Amores perros is indeed an experiment in genres, but not so much so for me. To me it's rather a difference in tone. I think this film can be considered a drama, almost a tragedy, for with the car crash destiny comes into play. While the first and third episodes are profoundly realistic, the second is somehow set apart - what happens in it borders on the absurd, even on the comedy of the absurd. So for me it's not so much a movie split into three separate stories as one single story split into three chapters. It's a story that deals with human pain, love and death - which make no distinction of social class.

'Amores perros' literally shows us Mexico City in a light we've never seen before. What principles defined the film's camerawork and other visual aspects?

What really mattered was the characters' stories, so I wanted a realistic feel, almost like a documentary. I've always favoured handheld camera because as well as stimulating the actors' freedom and spontaneity it's a way of shooting that faithfully reproduces the human gaze. I wanted to create the impression of documenting real, unplanned events so the camera was subordinated to the mise en scène, unlike in many other films where the scenic arrangement is dependent on the camera position. On another point, I like Nan Goldin's photographs very much, so for my first meeting with director of photography Rodrigo Prieto I took in a book by Goldin to exemplify what I wanted to achieve in terms of coloration, grain, visceral appeal. Curiously enough, he brought the same book with him, so from the very beginning we had a similar vision. Brigitte Broch, the production designer, didn't know Goldin, but from her own research produced moods that fit perfectly with what Rodrigo and I wanted.

We did many colour tests, thousands of lab treatments, and finally decided to use silver tint on the negative, which makes blacks darker and whites brighter. This technique is rarely used because it's very risky: after 10 years the images might disappear from the negative. Nevertheless, I wanted to elaborate my own aesthetic approach, and since the light in Mexico City is so poor, so sad and grey, we decided to take the risk. I think it was the right choice because the result is fantastic. Silver tint makes the film shout "bark".

Your command of narrative rhythm is remarkable for someone who's only made a 30-minute television pilot.

That's true, but I've spent 15 years telling stories. My job in WFM for five years was to keep 2 million people entertained for three hours a day every day using what you might call "musical narrative". I created atmospheres, moods, states of mind - a soundtrack for Mexico City lives. In radio I learned how to hold an audience captive. And then I've scripted and directed hundreds of television ads - they're small yet highly complex exercises in narrative that have to catch viewers' attention and get a specific message across in a reduced period of time. Advertising has its downsides, but it teaches some good things, and a knack for synthesising is one of them. Then the television pilot showed me which things I still needed to work on.

Such as?

One of the downsides of working in advertising was that I became obsessed with form; it mattered more than content. Not that I now think the latter is more important, but undoubtedly there must be harmony between the two.

Most film-makers living in Mexico City turn a blind eye to its problems or treat them superficially.

It's like politicians! Not only have they failed to face reality as it is, but they've attempted to manipulate it, to avoid it. We're an evasive society and as a result we're little inclined towards dialogue. We tend to take points of view that differ from our own as a personal offence. It's hard to move on in Mexico because neither the politicians nor the other citizens engage in dialogue - they adopt radical positions from which it's difficult to draw any common ground. Amores perros runs against the grain. It's a film in which there's dialogue between different social classes, in which you're not faced simply with good guys and bad guys, down-and-outs or yuppies. The broth is richer. Characters are multidimensional, which makes it difficult to make definitive judgements on them or their actions. I'd say Amores perros is like a big pozole [a rich broth made with Indian maize and meat garnished with chopped radish, lettuce and onion]. Just as a pozole has all kinds of ingredients - some healthy and some not so healthy - in this film contrasting and contradictory elements exist side by side. A good example is El Chivo/The Goat. Our first impression is of a sinister person, but as the film progresses we realise he's actually very humane. He may be a killer, but he's not immune to love, which finally redeems him.

Is he your favourite character?

I like him very much as I think he represents a lot of different things. For instance, he embodies those questions we all ask ourselves at certain points in our lives: who are we? where are we going? what have we become? The Goat starts to think about his failure to fulfil his dreams thanks to Cofi, who acts as a mirror on which he's reflected. So it's not just love that redeems The Goat, it's also the dog. Man redeemed by a beast; this idea fascinates me.

The Goat is also one of the ingredients that lends a political dimension to the film. Amores perros is a very political film, though not overtly so. At the end of the day, it portrays the effects of 70-odd years of an extremely authoritarian political regime. Until just 10 years ago, people like The Goat had no voice, no legal platform from which to express their opinions. The left was brutally repressed and many leftists joined the guerrilla movements. So The Goat represents this lack of dialogue, of communication, of freedom of expression.

I think the character can be read as a metaphor for the recent changes in Mexican society. Throughout the film he's aware his vision is poor but he doesn't do anything about it until the Cofi incident. Moreover, during all this time his thoughts are at least as hazy as his eyesight. Mexican society shared many of The Goat's characteristics - seemingly resigned to the impossibility of change, it took refuge in deep cynicism. Over the last 15 years, however, we have slowly recuperated our vision. And I think the film's box-office success is a testimony to these transformations.

I hadn't seen it that way, but it's true: people have put their glasses on. They've realised it's better to see things for what they are, however unpleasant, than to avoid or distort them. The fact that we've broken out of 71 years of inertia suggests we're a society that's beginning to gain the confidence we need to face up to change and its consequences.

I was stunned that the film was a commercial success. I never imagined so many people would go to see such a long film with such harsh subject matter. And I agree that what's going on in Mexico now had a lot to do with it.

Which film-makers influenced you, and in which cinematic tradition would you place your film?

Guillermo and I were very taken with the collaboration between Paul Auster and Wayne Wang in Smoke and Blue in the Face. In Amores perros we had a similar starting point to the latter: characters from different walks of life whom chance brings together. This is the only conscious influence I can think of. I suppose subconsciously many other film-makers may have influenced me; I have very eclectic taste. The directors who have surprised me most in recent years are Lars von Trier and Wong Kar-Wai, who have inspired me by experimenting formally and inventing new ways of narrative.

I don't think Amores perros belongs to any particular cinematic trend. In general it could be placed in the category of 'non-western cinema' - certainly it has nothing to do with either Hollywood or what's being made in Europe. I think western cinema has been in a state of crisis over the last 10 years. It's been unable to find a way of renewing itself in terms of structure, form and narrative. It's stagnated.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012