Posted on June 18, 2019
There are few filmmakers whose work I revere more that of Alejandro González Iñárritu. It was his second film, 21 Grams that first opened my eyes to cinema as an art. Prior to Oscars sensations Birdman and The Revenant, Iñárritu dealt unflinchingly with some of the most distressing aspects of humanity. From Mexican dog fighters to victims of human trafficking, his characters come from some of the most deprived communities. Sometimes battling terminal illnesses (which Iñárritu viscerally depicts) they experience the cruelty and violence of life and death. Each of his first four films – Amores Perros (2001), 21 Grams (2004), Babel (2007) and Biutiful (2011) – elicits a very personal response from the viewer.
Now Amores Perros has returned to MUBI as part of their Cannes Takeover and, if you haven’t seen it before, I highly recommend you tune in and watch before reading what’s next.
DEATH VERSUS SURVIVAL
Amores Perros opens with a frenetic car chase. A dog is dying on the back seat while the driver desperately tries to evade those pursuing him through the busy streets of Mexico. The chase ends in a cataclysmic crash that ties together three separate stories in the past, present and the future. As we flashback to the past, the driver seduces his brothers wife. The crash is the crisis point of his story. From here, the film propels us into the present where one of the crash victims, a model, copes with her disfigurement. In the future, a former hit-man rescues the dog from the wreckage and is set on a redemptive path.
Amores Perros is the first film in what has become known as Iñárritu’s ‘death trilogy’ but the term is a loose one. The characters of these films are exposed, not only to the physical deaths of family, friends and animals, but the metaphorical deaths of hopes, dreams and ideals. Iñárritu has himself questioned the accuracy of the label ‘death trilogy’, the films dealing as much with dying as surviving; with the desperate struggle to live. He would go on to explore survival very literally in The Revenant – which treks through the snowy wilderness with a frontiersman left for dead after a bear attack – and metaphorically, through the attempts of a washed up actor trying to cement his artistic legacy, in Birdman.
It is interesting that Biutiful, Iñárritu’s fourth offering and, arguably, his most distressing film, sits outside of the so-called ‘death trilogy’. Like 21 Grams, it follows a dying man but tells the story in a straight line (Iñárritu was so committed to this that he actually filmed it chronologically). Biutiful also establishes a more concentrated perspective – telling not three stories but one – resulting in a more intimate atmosphere. “Biutiful is a tough film,” says Iñárritu in conversation with The Telegraph, “It doesn’t make concessions to the vulgarity of light entertainment. It’s not the kind of film that you see, every day, in the Cineplex”. And yet the film is “about life,” he says, “It’s a hymn to life,”. Speaking to Collider in 2010, he argued that by “observing life through death, from the last point of it,” we are able to perceive that “the life has more meaning”. Death enables us to perceive life differently.
Indeed, Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel are also films about love and living, exploring family ties and passionate affairs. Iñárritu describes Amores Perros (in the film’s behind the scenes documentary) as being about “love”: the suffering that comes with love’s loss; with dependency; with the need to be desired; and with loneliness in a city of 20 million people. Even 21 Grams – which explores the interconnected stories of a dying heart patient, a grieving wife and an ex-convict tied together by (another) tragic car accident – reminds us that life goes on, not always as we might expect and often in spite of our anguish. By focussing too heavily on the films as a ‘death trilogy’, it easy to overlook their finer, humanistic elements.
The Spanish title of Amores Perros, for instance, has many meanings. The English title is offered up as ‘Love’s A Bitch’ but the title has also been described as an oxymoron that suggests both ‘that which is good and desirable in life’ and ‘that which is miserable’. While ‘perros’ directly translates to ‘dogs’ it has also been translated pejoratively as ‘an unworthy person’, ‘a hired killer’, ‘a prostitute’ and ‘an unfaithful person’, all labels that appear in the film. This ambiguity, this openness to interpretation is characteristic of Iñárritu’s work. Amores Perros, in particular, is opaque and multi-layered, raising questions about fate and love with a lightness of touch, with metaphor and gentle, visual suggestion. The closer you watch Amores Perros, the more it reveals. Let’s take a look at some of the motifs Iñárritu uses in Amores Perros and what they might mean.
1. DOGS: INSTINCTS & EMOTIONS
In the first segment, a young woman, Susana (Vanessa Bauche), struggles to raise her young child in a violent relationship with her husband Ramiro (Marco Pérez). Ramiro’s brother, Octavio (Gael García Bernal), treats Susana with warmth and kindness but bad feelings towards his abusive brother twist into a desire to run away with his wife. Taken over by lust, Octavio becomes sexually aggressive towards the woman he covets and increasingly violent towards his own brother. Octavio’s battle against his own animal instincts are encapsulated in the shot below. He holds back a fighting dog – the symbol of his own aggression – reigning it in and restraining it, its teeth bared and rearing up, until he no longer can, until the count is up. It is in these fighting pits, through these savage animals, that violent male rivalries play out.
The journey of Octavio’s dog, Cofi, mirrors his own. Cofi begins life as a pet but becomes a fierce, bloodthirsty animal when Octavio enters him into the fighting ring for cash. The fights are bloody and brutal, emphasised by rapid cuts and a shaky camera. The blood becomes a motif that connects the violence of aggression to that of Ramiro (against his wife), Octavio (against his brother) and the assassin. In the film’s behind the scenes documentary, actor Gael García Bernal describes Octavio’s desire as “an uncontrollable animal force that makes him do terrible things”. Both Octavio and Cofi are left seriously wounded as their third act begins.
Cofi is rescued from the wreckage by El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría), a former assassin, grieving for the happy family life has given up. El Chivo now spends his life with dogs; walking the streets with strays. In what is arguably the film’s most devastating scene, El Chivo returns home to discover Cofi has attacked and killed all the other animals he’s rescued. El Chivo points a gun at him, but he cannot shoot. Cofi represents El Chivo himself: a killer. The complex relationships we have with our dogs come to represent those we have with ourselves. “Masters take after their dogs you know,” says El Chivo who, awakened to his crimes, embarks on a path of redemption. In the closing lines of the film, Cofi is renamed ‘Blackie’, becoming a pet once again as El Chivo steps out into a wide open expanse (the first such shot in a claustrophobic film) in search of absolution.
While the present day story – of model Valeria (Goya Toledo) and her lover Daniel (Álvaro Guerrero) – is the least integrated in terms of its plot, dogs remain a vital device in the storytelling. Like Valeria, lap-dog Richie is beautiful and pampered. When Valeria becomes housebound, returning from the hospital in a wheelchair, Richie falls into a hole in the floor and becomes trapped. Valeria believes he is being eaten by rats. Over the next two weeks her mental health spirals and, just like Richie, she becomes lost in the darkness. Richie will not return to his owner’s calls; Valeria has lost control of him and her own life.
There are echoes of the ferocious dog fights in the couple’s viscous arguments as Valeria copes with the loss of her former life. But it is the sound of Richie whimpering beneath the floor that puts an end this hostility: he becomes Valeria’s hope.
2. PHOTOGRAPHS: PARENTS & BROTHERS
El Chivo is similarly grappling with the loss of the life he could have had. He carries around an old photograph album and returns time and again to a picture of his daughter’s graduation, pasting a photo of his own face over that of her step father. At the moment of his awakening, El Chivo puts on his glasses and looks up at the photograph of his daughter perched above his bed.
Iñárritu uses photographs throughout Amores Perros to communicate the importance of family which is disintegrating around the characters. El Chivo takes Octavio’s wallet from the crash and, perusing it, finds photographs of Octavio with his brother Ramiro. They are smiling. Revealed here, in the final act, the image is particularly tragic. Any return to these happy times seems impossible.
By pulling Octavio and Ramiro into El Chivo’s story in this way, Iñárritu is able to further deepen his exploration of brotherly rivalries. Indeed, El Chivo’s first redemptive act is to bring two more feuding brothers face to face: one has paid him to kill the other. These two brothers appear in one of the film’s final images, each in their corners reaching to the centre of the room for a gun. Has El Chivo set up a reconciliation? Or will it be a fight to the death? The composition of the shot echoes the very dog fights with which Amores Perros began.
Iñárritu revisited this theme in his next film Babel. The final instalment in the ‘death trilogy’ opens in Morocco. Two boys, Ahmed (Said Tarchani) and Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), are left in charge of a rifle. Their father instructs them to ward off jackals while the family’s goats graze on the mountains. But the boys become distracted and start shooting at targets. The youngest aims at a coach on the road below and accidentally shoots an American tourist. These actions have repercussions for a Mexican nanny in San Diego and the daughter of a Japanese hunter in Tokyo. The tragic accident is set in motion by the brothers’ rivalry. Yussef is jealous of his brother’s masculinity: his success with women and ability to shoot. The accident happens as he tries to prove himself.
The horrified father of Yussef and Ahmed in Babel is forced to contemplate his own role in the fate of his children. Fatherhood, too, is a recurring theme in Iñárritu’s work. A daughter becomes a valuable part of her father’s legacy in Birdman; a dying father passes on his family history to his children in Buitiful. Both of these fathers are able to remain in their children’s lives in ways that El Chivo cannot.
Absent parents are a tragic reality in Amores Perros. Susana remains dependent on an abusive husband because her mother is an alcoholic and her father an absentee. Valeria, meanwhile, is estranged from her parents who disapprove of her modelling career. Iñárritu flirts with this conflict as Valeria leafs through photo albums and glossy magazines.
3. ADVERTISING: DESIRE & DISPOSABILITY
Valeria is the face of ‘Enchant’ perfume and her image appears plastered onto buildings across Mexico City. She is standing in a suggestive pose, teasing up her short dress to reveal long elegant legs. The image is a provocative one and it elicits lustful reactions from the film’s male characters. In its hyper-masculine environment, lust and sexual aggression work to disintegrate family: as the film’s title tells us, ‘love’s a bitch’. Desire is a corrupting force that can lead to violence. Octavio sleeps with his brother’s wife; Daniel leaves his wife and children to be with Valeria.
The selfishness of men permeates the film’s plot: Susana labels Ramiro ‘selfish’ when he wakes the baby she has taken so long to settle; and Valeria accuses Daniel of selfishness when he refuses to take up the floor to find Richie. Yet the relationship between Valeria and Daniel – arising from an affair – outlasts our expectations of it.
As Valeria comes to terms with the loss of her physical beauty (as it is defined by the modelling industry), the Enchant billboards remind us of love’s tests and the fragility of lust. They are also Valeria’s torment. A billboard hangs across the street from her apartment providing a cruel reminder of her former life. Eventually the billboard is taken down and replaced with a sign, ‘space available’. It’s a crushing moment. Valeria has been discarded; she is as disposable as the dead dogs in Octavio’s fighting ring. Just as the dogs were not loved by their owners, neither has Valeria’s beauty and fame brought her love from her employers or fans. It’s amongst the worst of human traits, to dispose so carelessly of what we no longer believe we need. Valeria now faces an identity crisis; one that is shared by El Chivo who describes himself as “a living ghost”.
The hollow, vacuous nature of advertising and glossy magazines is revealed in the juxtaposition of the advert and the struggles of the film’s working class characters. The remoteness of this ideal for Octavio and Susana is particularly cutting. Octavio’s bedroom is adorned with images of cars cut from magazines and adverts. When he finally obtains the car of his dreams, the montage compares his aggressive sexuality with the now relatively subdued behaviour of his brother. He has been corrupted, bewitched by desire and greed.
Iñárritu would go on to explore the hollow state of Hollywood ambition in the Oscar winning Birdman and it’s hard to think of a director who could do this kind of self-analysing, industry-scrutinising film better. Iñárritu’s early films were short lived at the multiplexes despite reaping widespread critical acclaim. In Birdman he peels back the layers of conflict between the artistic, the worthwhile and the popular. “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit,” says Birdman in one of the many metaphorical conversations that happen inside the washed-up actor’s head. The scenes play out in an absurd, surrealist style, feeding a piercing, relevant debate about cinema’s current obsession with comic book films. It could be Iñárritu himself talking, as Edward Norton has intimated about his own lines in the film.
The success of Iñárritu’s trilogy lies in the creativity of its storytelling. All three films saw Iñárritu collaborate with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga whose screenplays share complex non-linear narrative structures, intricately connecting the disparate lives of three sets of characters. The result is a single thematic story about family, love, fate, hope and survival. “To make God laugh,” says Susana in Amores Perros, “tell him your plans”. Sadly, Babel marked the end of this relationship. In 2006, Iñárritu reportedly banned Arriaga from the film’s Cannes screening. Arriaga, a fierce advocate for the role of screenwriters had, apparently, been too vociferous about his role in 21 Grams.
Terrence Rafferty for (The New Yorker) recognised the irony in this quarrel:
In the behind the scenes documentary for the Blu-Ray release of Amores Perros, Iñárritu said “it was as if all the departments stepped back, allowing the characters’ stories to run their course, and I hope my direction won’t be noticeable”. Arriaga’s claim, that films should be perceived, not as the work of a single auteur, but auteurs, seems to be born out in Iñárritu’s filmography. The director’s first three films feel markedly different from the next. While Iñárritu has gone on to prove his dexterity with comedy Birdman and IMAX epic The Revenant, the feud is a devastating one for cinema. Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel are in a class of their own.
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