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Iñárittu’s debut film matches ‘Birdman’ in humanity and ambition

By Jack Ryan, For The Miami Student

After being utterly blown away by Alejandro González Iñárittu's Best Picture winner "Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)," I was understandably very curious about the director's past work and decided to sift deeper. I had previously seen bits and excerpts of "Babel" and "21 Grams," but never in their entirety, and hadn't even heard of the director's 2000 premiere film, "Amores Perros" until a few months ago.

"Amores Perros," regularly referred to as the "Mexican Pulp Fiction," shares many traits with Tarantino's classic, particularly its violent nature and overlapping story arcs. Here we follow three separate stories connected by a disastrous car crash that repeats throughout the film. First is the story of Octavio, a young man who is trying to leave town with Susana, his abused sister-in-law; second, of Daniel, an adulterous man struggling to live with Valeria, his severely injured mistress; and finally, of El Chivo, an old homeless assassin who makes ends meet through his murderous profession. The amount of pure plot and information in this film could have been overwhelming, but thankfully we are slowly introduced into later stories as earlier ones occur, instead of just being blindly thrown in.

Each of these segments could be decent standalone short films in their own respects, but are undoubtedly best in their combined form. Iñárittu wants us to understand the different levels of life in Mexico City, and uses style to differentiate and ultimately synthesize them. The quick editing of Octavio's tale reflects the cutthroat nature of the dogfighting that is earning him his escape money, and this hectic style adds tension to the subsequent lull of Daniel and Valeria's story. Valeria's tale is packed with self-loathing as she, now confined to a wheelchair, gazes at a billboard of her past modeling, intentionally placed outside her window prior to her accident. El Chivo's narrative has a bit of everything, from nonchalant hostage-captive dialogue, to emotional extremes and a strange feeling of compassion that is absent in the more wealthy protagonist's stories.

Upon reflection, "Amores Perros" and "Birdman" are similar in two major regards. First, they each carry an unbelievable amount of ambition. Second, they both explore human nature and mortality in extreme depth, and in this case it is through watching them deal with their canine companions. El Chivo seems completely undeterred as he kills a man early in the film, but when he finds his dogs dead, he is absolutely hysterical. Octavio despises his brother for his infidelity and abuse, but later puts his dog through a cruel sport and lusts for his brother's wife. Valeria is more concerned with her dog, accidentally trapped beneath her floorboards than with her crumbling relationship or her unstable health. These dogs aren't merely pets, they are people; people with names, traits and meaning. This blatant symbolism is introduced from the title; it doesn't take a Spanish background to translate "Amores Perros" into "Love's a Bitch."

An important thing to know about this film, or any other Iñárittu film for that matter, is that it is not positive or uplifting whatsoever. "Amores Perros," along with "21 Grams" and "Babel," is part of the aptly named "Trilogy of Death." This outright statement of unhappiness is key because it allows the viewer to spend less time focusing on the terrible things that are happening, and more on why they are happening and their effects on the characters. This is why Michael Keaton's obvious guise as "Birdman" was so smart in that movie: we already know his backstory.

However, with these powerful movements in storytelling and character development, the story racks up about two and a half hours worth of screen time and combined with the necessity of subtitles, this film becomes a commitment to watch. This will detract more sporadic viewers, as checking a cell phone tends to result in missing key plot points. "Amores Perros" is an extremely worthy and powerful film packed with strong characters, themes and ambition; if you can manage to give your entire attention to it, you'll be immensely satisfied.

"Amores Perros" is available for streaming through Netflix. No animals were harmed in the making of this film, but dog lovers should pass due to some grisly scenes.