Amores Perros isn't a movie to watch when you're feeling depressed. I'd have to classify it as probably the most relentlessly downbeat movie I've seen in ages. It's also a strangely compelling and memorable film.
The film is made up of three separate sections, each centering in some way around in a car accident caused by two young hoodlums in over their heads with a dogfighting ring. The different stories lead up to and away from this central incident, with major characters overlapping in each others' stories, somewhat like Magnolia. There's the story of Octavio and Susana, trapped in a life of poverty and crime; Daniel and Valeria, monetarily richer but caught up in the chains of a failing relationship; and "El Chivo" and Maru, in which an old hit man re-examines who he is and what he does. All the stories deal in some way with love and what happens when it is denied or twisted.
On the one hand, I can't say that Amores Perros was exactly an entertaining experience. On the other hand, it was undeniably a movie that affected me and that won't easily be forgotten. I think that the film is in fact intended to discomfit the viewer, and does the job very effectively.
Part of the discomfiture comes from the subject matter: director Alejandro González Iñárritu peels off the surface over poverty (both literal and emotional) and pokes around in the sensitive flesh underneath, producing a picture that is very truthful about what it's showing... uncomfortably so. Do we want to be reminded of the ways that life can take an unexpected and unpleasant turn, as for Valeria, the beautiful model who is hit in the car accident? Do we want to confront the fact that tidy happy endings are a feature of movies, not real life? Probably not... but it may be a good thing for us to confront those ideas anyway, and that's what González Iñárritu does in his film.
The cinematography also aids in creating a disturbing effect on the viewer. The camera work in general is very closed-in, with a tight focus on the actors and their immediate surroundings, resulting in an overall effect that is distinctive, but not entirely successful. It does help to convey the oppressiveness of the situation as the characters are feeling it, but I found that the heavy use of extreme close-ups, particularly when combined with the use of a hand-held camera, made for a disagreeable, almost headache-inducing experience.
Though the film is fairly long (153 minutes), its tripartite structure provides an internal pacing that prevents the movie from bogging down. In retrospect, I feel that the first segment of the film is both a bit too long and too dark, compared to the other two; as the most viscerally awful section of the movie, it is hard to take right off the bat. (It's worth noting that the dogfights, though very realistic-looking, were created through camera tricks, makeup, and so on: no dogs were hurt in the making of the film).
A movie that features unlikeable characters generally reveals that they have some redeeming qualities; or, alternately, provides some other characters with whom the audience can sympathize. Particularly in the first section of the film, Amores Perros thoroughly disregards this convention, with mixed results. Horrible people, behaving in horrible ways, or having awful things happen to them... without some sense that I cared about these characters, it was difficult to fully engage with the movie. This is, I think, a clear artistic decision on the part of González Iñárritu, and it does have its merit as the film unfolds. The relentlessly unsympathetic nature of the characters in the first two sections of the movie – where even characters who seem potentially likeable lose their veneer of decency under stress – makes a setup for the last section of the movie, in which what would otherwise seem a repellent character is revealed to have more depth than we might expect.
In fact, the dogs themselves are the most consistently likeable characters in the film. That's not to say that they're cute and nice; remember, much of the film features dogs trained for dogfighting. But unlike most of the humans in the movie, they are true to their own nature; even when forced to behave cruelly, as in the dogfights, we can see that they never become evil. Caught up in activities beyond their control, at the mercy of their owners (who are frequently severely lacking in mercy), the dogs suffer through no fault of their own.
Amores Perros received a reasonably good transfer to DVD. The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen (even though the DVD case doesn't specify that it's anamorphic, it is). Variations in lighting, exposure, and color tints are all used for effect at various points of the movie, so don't jump to any wrong conclusions about the color balance or the transfer quality. Overall, the colors seem accurate, and the contrast is handled well in both daylight and dark scenes. On the down side, the image is slightly grainy, with a fair amount of noise, which prevented me from awarding it a higher rating in this category.
The original Spanish soundtrack is presented in Dolby 5.1, and features some excellent use of surround sound, putting the rear channels to good effect. However, I did find that the overall sound had a slightly muffled quality to it, which detracted from the audio experience. A French Dolby 2.0 dubbed track is also offered; there is no English dubbed track.
Optional subtitles are available in English, Spanish, and French (along with a French Dolby 2.0 soundtrack). Oddly, the Spanish subtitles don't show what the characters are actually saying in the movie. I speak Spanish, but didn't feel confident with my ability to follow rapid, colloquial Mexican Spanish, so I chose the Spanish subtitles to give me a bit of help. But since these subtitles were slightly translated, not just transcribed, the effect was very disconcerting, and I ended up switching to the English subtitles, which provided a satisfactory experience.
When it came time to review the menus for Amores Perros, the quality control people must have been asleep. The menu titles alternate between the English and the Spanish versions... and the Spanish menu titles feature several egregious misspellings. We are treated to "pelicúla" instead of "película" and "atraciones adiciónales" instead of "atracciones adicionales," and the title of one of the music videos is also misspelled. Ugh. That's not a sign of care being taken with the DVD.
Misspellings aside, the extra content is quite respectable. There's about fifteen minutes of deleted scenes (which run sequentially), with some interesting material included. Three featurettes provide a look behind the scenes. The first featurette, "Los Perros," is a five-minute look at how the dogfighting scenes were staged. The second, "El Nacer: The Making of Amores Perros," is fifteen minutes long, and takes a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film through interviews with the director, the director of photography, and several of the actors. The third featurette takes a brief look at how the central car-crash scene was created and filmed. The last major extra is the audio commentary track, which is in Spanish with subtitles provided for the commentary. For minor special features, there are also three music videos and a trailer.
Amores Perros is very bleak, yet also very compelling. It's far from being a feel-good movie, instead presenting the viewer with uncomfortable images and situations that will stick in the mind for a long time afterwards.