Mexico at the Multiplex
It has been a long time since a Mexican film became an international critics' darling or audience favorite (since, probably, Like Water for Chocolate). The success of first-time director Alejandro González Iñárritu's Oscar-nominated, Cannes-awarded Amores Perros (Love's a Bitch)--currently playing on more than 150 screens in the United States alone and just past the $1 million mark in no-subtitles America--thus gives every appearance of the miraculous, a virgin birth devoid of precedent.
The plethora of coverage in the mainstream press, itself unusual for a Mexican film, has by now acquainted the moviegoing public with some of the details of the phenomenon. In a three-part structure of stories connected by a singular car crash, González Iñárritu sketches wildly different characters, classes and neighborhoods linked by crime and fate. The film eschews linear narrativity to jump-start its story from a central hub, circling events as though they were traffic roundabouts through which our attention can be endlessly but fruitfully redirected.
In the first, a Cain and Abel pair of brothers do battle in a downtrodden Mexico City barrio, while a woman, a dog and a considerable stash of cash hang in the balance; in the end, many bloody dogfight gambles later, betrayal trumps betrayal and a desperate race for help results in the fateful crash. In the second story, which climbs the social ladder, a smoothly upper-class Mexico City businessman leaves his family to shack up with a model. The car crash leaves his girlfriend injured and homebound, focused on the hole in the living-room floor and their dog, which disappeared into it. The third story joins the worlds of the first two in the character of a professor turned revolutionary turned hit man, hired to kidnap and kill a business partner who turns out to be his client's own brother. The prizefighting dog reappears, this time with a different mission. And the theme of family, imprisoning in the first and abandoned in the second, returns for a third time to signify refuge and rebirth.
Amores Perros has become a hit, not by virtue of its story but rather its style of storytelling. Raw and energetic, propelling the narrative forward with a musical score drawn from the ranks of Mexico's rock en español movement--note, here, that González Iñárritu spent years as a disc jockey before making commercials and finally turning to film--it's well suited to current international tastes. González Iñárritu has modernized Mexican cinema by shooting and editing in a relentlessly urban, fast-paced and hip fashion, packed with sex and violence and raring to go. It's a breath of fresh air in an industry more accustomed to older narrative and pictorial styles.
Too bad that freshness doesn't extend to gender or class relations, as the film reinscribes all the worst portrayals that Mexican cinema has formularized, from the treacherous underclass family that eats its young to the debased women who, in a universe in which everyone is doomed, always somehow suffer more--and always at the level of the body. It's too bad that González Iñárritu didn't retrofit his characters as thoroughly as his style. With one exception: The central figure of the film, the mysterious old revolutionary, who carries out hits at the bidding of a corrupt cop but really yearns to rejoin his family, smells like a sendup of Subcomandante Marcos. Perhaps González Iñárritu is more cynical than he is modern, after all.
Amores Perros is bound to be a banner film, one of which the new generation of Mexicans, who speak English fluently, wear international clothing and follow the latest cinematic trends (I had an argument with a colleague's teenage son, on my last trip, over the merits of Tarantino), can be proud. And the Tarantino connection is hardly incidental. Amores Perros is claiming a place for Mexico at the table of international cinema, seated right up there with Pulp Fiction, Go and Run Lola Run, thanks to their shared narrative strategies. The similarity serves it well, since US critics tend to be oblivious to the particularities of Mexican cinema.
Indeed, the only name to show up regularly in reviews is that of Luis Buñuel, the brilliant Spanish director who set up shop in Mexico City when Franco came to power and who stamped Mexican cinema forever with the images of Los Olvidados. Of course, however, the low-life setting mined by González Iñárritu in Amores Perros was virtually invented by Arturo Ripstein, Buñuel's artistic heir, who has fashioned an entire career out of the underclass for three decades, replete with squalid living conditions, depraved behavior, doomed characters and violent mises en scènes. As ahistorical as it is ever-present, this style has become cinematic shorthand for hecho en México and a school of filmmaking to which González Iñárritu clearly owes a debt.