During the twentieth century, Mexico was experiencing an era of economic instability and an obvious division of social classes. In Amores Perros Iñárritu, the director brilliantly portrays the distinction in the separation of the classes, and the effect of the economy on society. In Amores Perros, Daniel, Octavio, Susana, and El Chivo represent the three social classes in Mexico, the rich, the poor, and extreme poverty. Octavio and Susana clearly represent the lower class. Iñárritu emphasizes the lack of comfort and space through the characters’ dialogue and setting.
Perhaps the timing of release was precise, (Mexico was weeks away from its presidential elections that broke the 70 year term of one-class ruling), but Amores Perros (Gonzalez-Iñárritu, 2001) a ground-breaking Mexican film under new Latin American Cinema made record-high box office success within its very first few weeks of showing. Its sheer braveness and boldness at showing reality of life in the city served to shock and reveal to millions of people how modern-day life was in the one of the busiest energy hotspots of the World; of a world brimming with positive and negative energy, that lead people to the brink of despair.
The metropolis is presented as exclusively Mexican, yet one that is not dissimilar from other cities in Latin America, whereby violence, self-interest and lust are omnipresent and whereby, as much as they are fundamental to one’s survival, are also the very reason for one’s downfall. Iñarritu’s interpretation of the DF (Mexico City) is a reflection of society that lives in constant fear, under great pressure, and in complete turmoil, literally and psychologically. He has produced an intimate social study of the people that make up and shape the city into what it is to this day. Without exaggerating the lack of law and order, he demonstrates that for the majority of its city-dwellers, the underworld is the only option if one is to survive. The director ‘hooks us into the diegetic world of the film by condensing into three interconnected stories the images of the general pain of daily life as well as the social, political, and economic ‘inheritance’ of today’s alienated youth and the elders who have prepared this crushing scenario for them.’1
Iñarritu decided to reveal the more sinister side of what it is like to be living in the DF, and offered the viewer a subtle criticism of the Mexican political situation that feeds the rich and abandons the poor.
In certain aspects his interpretation of the city differs from the way cities are shown in other Latin American and Hollywood films. His DF is as real as real gets; you win some and you lose some, but that is simply the way life goes.
An ideal comparison is that with the 2000 Hollywood film by Steven Soldbergh, Traffic, which also combines three distinct stories into one, whereby one of the plots is set in Mexico. Interestingly, the director chose to use a handheld camera for the Mexican scenes only. ‘The “Mexican” story appears grainy, rough, and hot to go with the rugged Mexican landscape and congested cities’ (1b). Shot through a sepia lens, it gives Mexico City a feel of a sleepy, developing-world frontier city, as opposed to Iñarritu’s interpretation of a cutting-edge modern metropolis. Soldbergh contrasted the sepia-tinged Mexico with a blue tinged USA,, whilst Iñarritu, on the other hand, used skip bleach and tinged the images with blue. Steven Soderbergh chose Hollywood stars namely Catherine Zeta Jones, Michael Douglas and Benicio Del Toro to play the leading roles which gives an unreal sense to the film, keeping the viewers one step away from reality. It demands the viewer to accept certain ludicrous twists. What further sets it apart from the viewer is that the plot involves high-profile characters such as the CIA, High Court American judges, and famous drugs cartels. What sets Amores Perros apart from other films that represent the city is that the characters are ‘real,’ and based on characters one would meet in the street.
Most filmmakers living in Mexico City have turned a blind eye to its problems or treat them superficially and hence fail to face reality. Iñarritu has not. Instead he has chosen to project a broader segment of society by looking at a ‘trilogy of situations and characters interwoven across the class lines and geographies of contemporary urban Mexican society.'(2) Gonzalez-Iñarritu broke the expectation that many people had with regard to their view of the future of Latin American cinema.
As he said himself, ‘I am not a Mexican with a moustache and a sombrero and a bottle of tequila (…) nor am I a corrupt cop or a drug trafficker. There are millions like me. And this is the world I live in and the one I want to show.'(2b)
In Amores Perros Iñarritu shows the consequences brought on a society from a city that offers nothing but a proliferation of social injustice, political corruption and neo-liberal dogma.
However, although Iñarritu did to some extent take on serious social and philosophical issues, Amores Perros had a principal objective to entertain. Because the film did not receive any governmental funding, Iñãrritu was able to experiment with the social and cinematographic content.
Crime and violence are key themes in the film, yet, unlike Hollywood, these events are not sensationalized but instead are presented rather mundanely. The story of Octavio and Susana is the most emotionally tense of the three and involves high levels of violence, self-interest and lust. However, all the stories work together, each with its individual tone and rhythm, in order to create a fuller image of life in the city.
Fast editing, such as in the dogfight scenes, forbids the viewer from obtaining a real understanding of what they are seeing, reflecting the confusion and fast-pace of city life. By overloading the film with scenes of physical titillation he manages to create an intensification of our emotions hence reflecting those of the characters on screen. Violence within the film is rife, when even Ramiro is prepared to gun down his dog, danger is constantly a threat lying just around the corner.
The cross-editing that occurs when Ramiro is being beaten up and Octavio is having sex with Susana is full of dark connotations of the violence and the phenomenon of family breakdown in Mexico today. Whilst Octavio may appear innocent and peaceful, he is still inflicting pain upon his brother, who in turn will have it thrown back at him when he runs away with Susana with his savings. The violence therefore is cyclical. The scenes draw the viewer in with an over-load of violence, blood, skin and sweat, and a soundtrack of ‘Lucha de Gigantes’ to emotionally move them. Iñarritu’s grainy choice of resolution and skip-bleach, together with hand-held camera, a blurry vision, artificial lights, and a blue tint, give a sense of film noir, or gangster genre, which reflects perfectly the underworld and under-class that they live in.
Violence is not only a result of poverty however, as is seen within the third story, another ‘Cane and Abel-type’ plot whereby Gustavo Garfias hires a hit-man, El Chivo, to murder his very own brother. A somewhat less tense sequence, El Chivo’s story reflects that of Octavio’s in many ways; both opening sequence are in a car, and both follow a ‘Cane and Abel’ theme. This reoccurring family rupture accentuates the affects city life has on its inhabitants and suggests that Mexican society itself is spiralling down into a vortex of violence.
‘The physical and psychological mutilation, amputation, death, bloodshed, and cold-blooded killers-for-hire are not merely literal images but metaphors for something even more disturbing that holds society together- our animal nature that we try and domesticate,’3 and ironically so, it is the human who emerges as the most destructive. This is because they have been envenomed by greed and self-interest, but at the same time have also been made to suffer from the actions of others.
The violence presented is on the one hand very believable. Via setting, cinematography, use of unknown actors and even soundtrack, Iñarritu has given the viewer a real sense of the violence in Mexico City. ‘The soundtrack is filled with pulsating music, squealing automobile tyres, and alternative whimpering and barking dogs.’ 3b
Domestic family violence, dog-fighting and shop hold-ups are common in every society, and Ramiro’s secret criminal hold-ups also seem very realistic, as Iñarritu has not glamourized them. On the other hand, one could also argue that El Chivo’s story is slightly too fabled from the viewer’s point of view. A regular middle-class man, turned Revolutionary, turned hit-man may be slightly too intangible to believe yet El Chivo’s methods of killing however, are very unglamourized and therefore believable.
Gustavo’s desire to have his brother killed is purely out of self-interest and greed for money, the consequence of a neo-liberalist, capitalist world. Gustavo represents a typical young middle-class man desperately trying to preserve his social and economic status, and being consumed by envy and greed, is willing to go to great lengths in order to do this. His weak character contrasts greatly with the larger-than-life presence of El Chivo who represents the opposite end of the political spectrum, of a schoolteacher turned Revolutionary. El Chivo is the most down-to-earth character in the film, distanced from the ills of society, who has chosen dogs as his sole companions. After all, ‘they obey, they are loyal, and they do not even protest inhumane treatment. They lick the hand of the owner to the very end.’4 Dogs contrast hugely with humans in this sense. This story is an interesting insight into the life of a ‘nobody,’ of a near ‘invisible,’ who in fact has had the most interesting life out of all the characters. His life is not driven by a sense of self-interest, as the only thing he has in his mind is the loss of his daughter, and the money that he acquires from the assassinations he carries out is all for her. He owns no flash belongings, except the watch and ring he found in the dump which he considers treasures.
However, at the scene of the crash, he does nothing to help the victims, but steals their money and their dog. He seems to have no patience for human beings, only a great pity and deep love for animals. He laughs when his victims are in the newspapers, but cries when his dogs are killed. This love for his dogs contrasts greatly to the brutality of treatment of the fighter dogs within Octavio’s story and the dog serves as a link to suggest the world in which he lives, where humans are devoured by self-interest, and where they are made to fight to their deaths. Dogs also serve as a link in which to compare the distinctively different lives of the social classes so apparent in Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Whereas Chivo’s dogs are pacifist and rugged, (a direct reflection of their owner,) and Octavio’s is made to fight, Richie, a spoilt, kemp poodle, reflects his owner, the billboard model Valeria.
The majority of the principal characters have obsessive temperaments, which in the end will inevitably lead to disappointment. Octavio has little or no family ties but instead lives in a cocoon of instincts and drives which compel him to pursue his brother’s wife, who herself falls victim to her own self-interest and enters an intense sexual relationship with him. Valeria is obsessed with her looks, and Gustavo with his social status. Iñarritu has purposely highlighted this human flaw of extreme self-interest and contrasted it with a dog’s faithfulness.
Valeria, whilst herself the cause of another family’s break-up, has her hopes shattered with the ruin of her modelling career. When before, she would look out of her penthouse window and see herself on the billboard, she now sees it has been taken down only to be replaced with advertisement for new publicity. Her colleague who tells her to forget the campaign breaks the news with no remorse, and the cycle of self-interest falls back on her. On a film that puts so much importance on every single event running up to the crash, had Daniel never left his wife, then Valeria would never have left the house to buy a welcome gift, and the crash would never have happened. Had he overcome his feelings of self-interest and lust with regard to Valeria, there would be no tragedy in which to tell the tale.
Iñarritu shows how in every aspect, and on every level of daily living, self-interest is insidious. It is, again, the presence of three correlating stories that helps to portray how real each character’s story is whilst the characters’ acting is also very believable.
Amores Perros oozes lust and it is this sin that causes the destruction of the family unit in the case of both Octavio and Daniel. Adultery is a recurring theme in many films, and therefore it does not offer a new vision of life in the city as such, although in a dog-eat-dog world as is that in the DF in Iñarritu’s interpretation, it is not only the good guys who is betrayed. Whilst Ramiro is having illicit sex with the girl from work, little does he know that his very brother is seducing his young wife.
The cinematography of the love scene between Octavio and Susana is, as was previously mentioned, sweaty and very passionate, yet it has not been glamourized. They have sex in the laundry room at home, Ramiro with his mistress in the stock cupboard at work, and Luiz Miranda Solares with his woman in a plush motel in the city. This sexual energy so common in Mexican society is psychologically and physically destructive and can only bring about problems. On the other hand, Iñarritu suggests that only those who live love intensely can escape the vulgarity of their everyday existence in the city. Therefore no matter which route one takes, they are destined to an unfulfilling existence.
It is perhaps because there are multiple human flaws and vices presented in this film that Iñarritu does not delve too deeply into the theme of adultery. The pace of the film is too fast and so is that of the city, and the resulting destruction created by adultery plays only a small part in the destruction of Mexico City as a whole.
Amores Perros certainly did on the one hand offer a new vision of the city to non-Mexicans. The fact that one of the set designers was foreign herself meant that she had a very rich appreciation of Mexican culture and neither exaggerated nor minimised its presence within every aspect of the film. The city within the film is a purely Mexican phenomenon via even the smallest details, be they mundane cultural activities, style of dress, mode of speaking or behaviour.
Amores Perros had no Hollywood influences nor did the Mexican government play any role in the films content. This is important in order to appreciate the balance between message and entertainment value within the film.
Perhaps what makes the stories so real is how the director interweaves politics within the everyday lives of the characters, placing their individual despairs within an undeniably political setting, suggesting that there is no escaping from the environment in which one is living in. It is this reality that gives a new vision to life in the city.
On the other hand, certain elements within the film do not suggest any new vision of life in the city. The exaggerated circumstances of each character leads the reader to link it with Hollywood films that employ over-dramatized plots, dramatic backing tracks, explosions, and fast editing to name a few stylistic features.
Corruption and instability within everyday living are stereotypical of Mexico, and Iñarritu has not avoided these stereotypes. However, as they are portrayed within an everyday existence, he has avoided branding these as a Mexican phenomenon. Furthermore, it has to be said that a film with no abnormalities would be unsuccessful, for where is the excitement in this? Iñarritu has created an exciting film offering a new vision of the city based on violence, self-interest, and lust.