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.