Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Amores Perros (Love Is a Bitch) is fast, fascinating and intermittently brilliant. It's also flawed, frustrating and ultimately elusive. The narrative unwinds in three faintly interconnected stories. The film starts in a panic and ends in a wasteland. I don't think I'll succeed in figuring it out or, in fact, that it can be. But I'd sit through all 153 minutes again, and I greatly look forward to Inarritu's next effort.
Written by Guillermo Arriaga and nominated for a best foreign film Oscar, Amores Perros is a tale of Mexican families in crisis. The first and strongest of its three chapters, "Octavio and Susana," visits territory first traveled by Cain and Abel. Susana (Vanessa Bauche) is a lovely young mother. Her brutal husband Ramiro (Maro Perez) works as a drugstore cashier by day and an armed robber by night. Ramiro beats Susana and otherwise abuses her. He refuses to wear condoms when they have sex, but is poised to blame her if she becomes pregnant again. Ramiro's younger brother Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal) is in love with Susana and dreams of taking her away from the cruelty of the home in which they all share cramped quarters. Octavio's chance to do so comes by accident when he discovers that Cofi, the family dog, is a fierce fighter. Octavio begins to enter Cofi into dog fights and gradually gathers money sufficient to make a new life for himself. In the process, however, Octavio becomes far too much like Ramiro, like the emblem of everything that he despises.
In the middle and weakest chapter, "Daniel and Valeria," a successful magazine publisher abandons his wife and two children to take up cohabitation with a glamorous model. Unfortunately, the model is severely injured before Daniel (Alvaro Guerrero) and Valeria (Goya Toledo) even manage to settle in to their fancy, high-rise apartment. Valeria turns shrewish as dream turns into a nightmare, and Daniel soon finds himself longing for the life he left behind. Meanwhile, in what must be a metaphor for the way in which fame imprisons as much as it liberates, Valeria's beloved dog Richie chases a ball into a crawl space underneath the new apartment's floorboards, becomes trapped and is tormented by rats. (Dogs have it pretty bad in this film.)
The third chapter, "El Chivo and Maru," focuses on a scraggly homeless man who wanders the streets with a pack of mangy dogs, pushing a grocery basket and raiding garbage cans. But Chivo (Emilio Echevarria) is a man with a fascinating past. Two decades ago he was a successful college professor who abandoned his wife and toddler daughter when he abruptly decided to join a band of revolutionaries. Arrested and imprisoned for terrorism, Chivo did not seek out his family upon his release. Instead, he plunged into vagrant despair. Today, for reasons that don't quite wash, given both his grubby lifestyle and his spiritual malaise, Chivo works as a killer for hire.
The Amores Perros filmmakers try to tie these stories together in several ways. The narrative connections are clever but thin. Fleeing from a dogfight that has dissolved into human violence, Octavio is at the wheel of the speeding car that smashes into Valeria's and leaves her crippled. Chivo witnesses the accident from across the street and rushes to the scene to rescue Octavio's dog, Cofi. Cofi returns the favor in a way both gruesome and predictable. The thematic connections are more alluring. Octavio strives to break up Ramiro's marriage; Daniel and Chivo break up their own. The bloody Cain and Abel rivalry of the first chapter appears again in the third when a prosperous young businessman hires Chivo to kill his brother who is also his partner. And the blindness of lust is a factor in the doomed relationships in both chapters one and two.
Octavio's desire to save Susana from violence and heartache is persuasive enough that we root for him even as he journeys to a dark place. The script fails adequately to account for Susana's ambivalence, but nonetheless, standing alone, the first chapter achieves a sad wholeness. How often we become what we hate. Chapter two, in contrast, feels small and under-imagined. An episode in which a television personality serves as a high-profile beard for the relationship between Daniel and Valeria proves entirely extraneous. And neither of the two central characters generates nearly the kind of sympathy we feel for those in chapter one.
Still, power arrives at the end as Valeria finds a blank space on the billboard where her image used to dominate the street. Success is fragile even for those who seem born to succeed. In chapter three the filmmakers apparently yearn to say something about the enduring possibility for redemption. I remain unconvinced by their details, however. And like all the others in this film Chivo seems finally to learn very little at all.