Monday, September 17, 2007

Movies: Amores Perros

Way better than the boggy Babel, Amores Perros has all of the grit and none of the yippy, yuppy fluff that made that later Iñárritu/Arriaga project so unbearable. And yet, the seed of what would really destroy Babel—excessive screen time given to non-sympathetic (to say the least) characters—was already planted.

The film investigates the relationships of three different male/female pairs, whose stories all interlock by way of dogs (one dog in particular, named Cofi). Octavio begins entering Cofi into dog fights in order to make money to help support his family and, more importantly, to impress and hopefully run away with his sister-in-law Susana, who has a small baby, is pregnant again, and who is treated horribly by her husband. At one of the last fights, when he has amassed enough of a nest egg for their escape, the competitor shoots Cofi out of pure villainy, and in the car, speeding toward safety while the villains chase them (Octavio stabbed the head villain in retaliation), Cofi bleeding all over the backseat, Octavio crashes into another car. The driver is Valeria, a leggy blonde model who has just moved into a new apartment with her boyfriend Daniel (who happens to be married with two kids and freshly embarked on a separation), and the accident destroys one of her legs (eventually, it needs to be amputated). Luckily, her lapdog escapes unscathed, and Daniel brings him home, where he falls into a hole in the hardwood floor chasing a toy, and becomes lost. Daniel finally finds him after tearing up holes all over the apartment's floor; he's sick, broken, starved, and has been attacked by rats, but he's alive. Meanwhile, a scraggly bum (whom we later learn to call El Chivo) we've seen wandering the streets with a cart and a motley menagerie of dogs, witnesses the car wreck, and, finding Cofi's bleeding body unattended in the middle of the street, takes him home and nurses him back to health. While he is busy stalking his estranged daughter, now an adult with her own apartment, committing vigilante justice (he shoots his daughter's step-father dead), and working on a project as a hitman (he ultimately does not kill the target, but instead ties him up, steals his money and his car, lures his client to his home, ties him up in the same room, steals his money and car, and leaves them there together with one gun), Cofi, doing only what he has been trained to do, attacks and kills all of El Chivo's other dogs.

None of this, though, occurs in the one-two-three order I've presented. The film starts in the middle (the car chase), goes back, comes around to the chase again, then continues. The sections each have threads of the of the other plot lines woven through them, although they focus most intensively on the couple at hand. We never meet El Chivo's daughter, only witness him, at the end, when he has transformed himself with a bath, a shave, a mani-pedi, and a wardrobe change (the suit stolen off of his client's back), sitting on her bed, piling thick rolls of money under her pillow, pasting a picture of himself on her graduation picture, over her step-father's own face, and leaving a message on her answering machine, apologizing for disappearing when she was two in order to fight with the Zapatistas.

Everything is beautifully filmed, and all the performances are fantastic. The characters' relationships are each loaded enough to provide fodder for much more than a single blog entry or just one night of conversation. Even the least interesting characters, Valeria and Daniel, who are most similar to characters in Babel (solipsistic, vapid, self-indulgent, etc.), who grate more and more heavily on our nerves as they shout "Richie! Richie!" seeking Valeria's lost powderpuff dog (an obnoxious abomination in and of himself), are redeemed when Daniel finds the dog's body, collapsed and matted, shaking, and we see that the dog is a cipher for the broken Valeria herself, and the tenderness with which Daniel holds its deflated body to his chest is the tenderness he feels for his broken beauty, who is now imbued with all of the dog's innocence; he never intended to be what he was; perhaps she didn't either. Each of the dogs actually functions as cipher: Cofi for El Chivo more clearly than for Octavio, although the characters are similar, pursuing the love of a woman who won't return it, well-intentioned at heart, but driven by circumstance to make violent decisions. At the film's end, each has even cut his hair, Octavio to the very skin, where stitches circle his skull after the car wreck. He is at his brother's funeral; he was shot dead while attempting to rob a bank after running away with his wife, baby, and all of Octavio's savings. Susana continues to reject his affection. In this trilogy of tragedy, his is the most affecting, perhaps since his character is the most innocent (or should I say least guilty? After all, he did fornicate (did I not say that yet?!) with his brother's wife, and he did pit his dog against others in fights, and he did stab a man in the chest), or perhaps just because he's played by Gael García Bernal, whom it's impossible not to adore (and I mean that as a movie-watcher, not as a young female).

Ultimately, the film could have been 20 minutes shorter (with nearly all of that cut coming from the middle section), but it's excellent anyway. I'm quite shocked by the number of people I know who didn't like it at all.

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