Mexican import Amores Perros works because it isn't just an exercise in Tarantinoesque violence and bad dialogue, but rather picks up more on Tarantino's filmic sensibility, weaving together three essentially unrelated stories by having them converge on a central scene. Also, as in all great films, all the stories involve dogs. Pretty, fluffy, dogs.
In the first tale a young man named Octavio covets his brother's wife. Well, his brother's wife and his brother's dog, and as everyone knows, the Bible forbids both of these covetings. To make matters worse, his brother is mean to his wife, Susana, and yet Susana still prefers this mean fella to kind young Octavio. Thinking that he could kill two birds with one stone, Octavio takes his brother's dog and enters it into some dog-fighting contests so as to make enough money to get Susana to love him.
Strangely, Susana is not swayed by the dog fighting and cash, but Octavio perseveres, in the way that people in movies who are in love persevere. You know, in the way that would normally get you a restraining order.
Susana doesn't get a restraining order, but she doesn't suddenly fall in love with Octavio either, which makes this film far more intelligent than your average American romantic comedy. Then again, G.W. Bush is probably more intelligent than your average American romantic comedy, but unlike G.W., Amores Perros is loaded with great dialogue and believable characters.
The film switches gear for the second story, about a woman whose dog crawls under the floor of her apartment and won't come out. It's tense and amusing, but the characters aren't as interesting or fully developed as in the first tale, and the movie lags a bit during this part. Luckily, it's brief, and it does have enough good concepts to keep interest up until the final installment, where things get very Tarantinoey.
That story involves a paid assassin named El Chivo, who is an elderly man whose only friends are his dogs. El Chivo is paid to knock off a businessman by the businessman's partner, but things don't quite work out. Rather, before Chivo can get to the killing, a stray dog teaches him a lesson in humanity. This lesson, like most good lessons in humanity, involves lots of blood and biting and death, and is just the thing to make El Chivo think better of his whole paid assassin business, which, upon reflection, he realizes might not be the hallmark of the moral individual.
Amores Perros has a lot going for it, including some intricately woven plotting and electrifying cinematography. What really sets it apart, though, is the great acting. I'm always amazed how almost any foreign film that wasn't made in France has better acting than almost any American film. There must be something about being neither French nor American that allows for a greater naturalness of expression. I guess that thespian prowess just naturally increases with one's genetic distance from Gerard Depardieu.
Vanessa Bauche is particularly good as Susana. She hasn't been seen much in films available north of the border, unless you caught her walk-on as "Indian Woman" in Mask of Zorro, but that's probably because she doesn't look terribly like what an American audience thinks a lead female should look like. She looks kind of, I don't know, like an Indian Woman.
Oddly, not looking white doesn't at all get in the way of her acting, and I'm pretty sure she has enough talent to reach star status at least south of the border. Emilio Echevarría as El Chivo is also excellent, as is Gael García Bernal as Octavio. Both are capable of being intense without having that hammy, action-star quality about them that makes Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood so unintentionally hilarious.
Amores Perros was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the recent Academy Awards, though it lost to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. It's too bad, really, because Crouching Tiger is just a big-budget action movie, and, while it's well done, it's in no way original or even terribly intelligent. Amores Perros is every bit as engaging as Crouching Tiger but it never stoops to cheap tricks to keep up audience interest. Rather, it relies on engaging characters and plotting, which is much more difficult and ultimately more rewarding to watch.
I hope you'll go see it, and if the promise of a good story, well acted, isn't enough to get you in the theaters, then remember: It also has dogs. Pretty, fluffy dogs.