Amores Perros (2000) is the first feature film of Mexican Filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu. Released in 2000 at the Cannes Film Festival, the movie won the Prize of the Critic's Week at Cannes. It was the first Mexican film after 25 years that entered an Oscar competition. By referring to specialist magazine Cine XS (Flores-Durán and Pedroza, 2000) Paul Julian Smith explains that ‘ Amores Perros is representative of a ‘new trend’ in Mexican cinema’ (Smith, 2003, p. 25).
The winner of over thirty awards (including the most successful film at the Mexican box office of its year), Amores Perros is widely credited with kick-starting a Mexican film industry which was in ruins and heralding a renaissance for the national audiovisual sector. (Smith, 2003, p. 10)
The film not only won a lot of prizes at international film festivals, it was also very successful at the box offices. It earned $ 10 million in Mexico, $ 5 million in the US and $20 million worldwide (Smith, 2003, p. 13). ‘The critical and commercial success of González Iñárritu’s film comes at a time when the Mexican film industry appears to be going through its worst period since the early 1930s’ (D’Lugo, 2003, p. 221).
But what makes this film so successful? The brilliant narration, the strong soundtrack, the outstanding cinematography and special marketing strategies could be factors for its success. The cinematic and editing techniques used in this movie are very different from films of former Latin American filmmakers. In this essay, I would like to concentrate on the cinematography of Amores Perros and analyse how it creates meaning and supports the story and the characters.
I’ll start with general information about the movie and then I will sum up the plot very briefly. After that, I will begin the analysis of the cinematography and give some background information about the production. Firstly, I want to give some general information about the specific cinematographic techniques used in Amores Perros and then I would like to analyse several sequences more properly. The opening sequence will be analysed accurately, then I concentrate on several key-scenes.
Amores Perros is ‘structured around three loosely connected stories linked by a car accident’ (De la Fuente, 2001, p. 17). The plot isn’t linear, it doesn’t use flashbacks or flash-forwards, it tells three stories - ‘Octavio and Susana’, ‘Valeria and Daniel’ and ‘El Chivo and Maru’ - edited together in an unusual way. The protagonists of these stories have nothing in common, but a car accident and the fact, that they are dog-owners.
The film begins with a car race and crash. Octavio, his friend and the bleeding dog Cofi in the back of the car are escaping from another car. At a crossroad, they hit the car of a beautiful woman, who gets seriously injured. Then the plot immediately switches to an illegal dogfight to tell the story of Octavio and Susana. Octavio is in love with Susana, the teenage mum and wife of his violent brother. He earns money with dogfights and gives it to Susana in order to run away with her and start a new life somewhere else. Therefore Octavio pays a gang to beat up his brother Ramiro. But instead of wining Susana by getting rid of Ramiro, Ramiro and Susana flee with Octavio’s money. At its last dogfight, Octavio’s dog Cofi gets shot by a jealous combatant, Jarocho, whose dog is going to lose. As a countermanoeuvre, Octavio stabs Jarocho in his stomach and flees with his dog and his friend in his car from Jarocho’s gang. The car race that we already saw in the opening sequence starts again. This time we get to know the woman in the second car of the car accident: it’s Valeria Amaya, a model, who attended a TV show that Octavio and his friend were watching before going to the last dogfight.
Now the second story, ‘Valeria and Daniel’, begins. Model Valeria and editor Daniel had just moved into their new apartment, because Daniel suddenly left his wife Julieta and his safe family life for the beautiful and successful model Valeria. Valeria’s leg gets hurt in the accident and has to be amputated after some weeks. In the meanwhile, her dog, Richie, falls down the floor and gets almost eaten by rats, rescued in the last moment by Daniel, destroying the floor to get the dog out of it.
The last story ‘El Chivo and Maru’, is about the tramp El Chivo, who makes his money as a hired assassin, trying to get in contact with his daughter Maru, who thinks that her father is dead. El Chivo’s actual job is to kill Louis Miranda Solares, the half-brother and business-associate of Gustavo Garfias, who hired El Chivo. ‘We see the car crash once more, but this time from Chivo’s point of view as he is about to assassinate Louis, and instead saves Octavio’s dog, Cofi’ (Hart, 2004, p.187). Cofi later kills all of El Chivo’s dogs. Later Chivo decides not to kill Louis, but instead kidnaps the two brothers to leave them alone with a gun. He dresses up, leaves his daughter an actual photo of him and a message on the answering machine and disappears together with Cofi, who he named Negro, into the horizon.
Amores Perros is shot during 10 weeks on location at several places in Mexico City, using a documentary-style camerawork. Iñárritu ‘feels that no set looks and feels like a real location’ (Oppenheimer 2001, p. 27). Thus, there is no scene of Amores Perros shot in the studio. These two facts, the hand-held camera and the on-location-shooting, make the film realistic.
To shoot Amores Perros, director Alejandro González Iñárritu and director of photography Rodrigo Prieto used a special technique to of a ‘bleach-bypass process on the camera negative’ (Oppenheimer, 2001, p. 20.) for the whole film to get really bright colours. ‘The film stock [is] processed with silver retention to create stronger contrasts and texture in colour’ (De la Fuente, 2001, p. 17). In the opening sequence, one realizes loud colours: the yellow of the fire when Octavio’s car crashed in the other one is just unnaturally bright. But also in the rest of the film, there is a strong use of colours. The white is sometimes just too white.
Furthermore, Prieto, who had already won two Ariels1 for previous Mexican features, explained that he ‘had a very specific grain structure in mind’ (Oppenheimer, 2001, p. 20). So he used for the first and the third chapter a special film stock. The second episode was shot on a different film ‘in order to make it crisper and cleaner’ (ibid, p. 24).
We wanted the film to feel realistic, but with an edge. We were after the power of imperfection [and wanted to] use ‘mistakes’ to enhance the urgency and unpredictability of life in a place like Mexico City. (Oppenheimer, 2001, p. 22.)
But not only is the film stock special. The camerawork is extraordinary, too. Iñárritu and Prieto used hand-held cameras for almost every shot. In an Interview, Iñárritu explains that they wanted to create for each chapter an own look: in the first episode the camera movement is ‘the most rhythmic, the most aggressive’. The second story is ‘the most classical – the story moves slowly’. In the third story, the camera handling is ‘bothedgy and elegant’. (Oppenheimer, 2001, p. 24). For making each chapter individual, Prieto used different lenses. ‘Octavio and Susana’ was shot on a wider lens to keep the camera close to the actors. In ‘El Chivo and Maru’, Prietoused a long lens, including a zoom, ‘because Chivo is always spying on people’ (ibid, p. 24). Furthermore, this framing ’isolate[s] the man from his environment’ (ibid, p. 24). In Amores Perros, we don’t see much about Mexico City. All shots are taken inside buildings or from an eye-level position of the characters, so that we never see the top of the building. This takes the audience into the city. They are just at the same perspective as the characters in the movie.‘There is… not one crane shot in Amores Perros even when circumstances seem to cry out for it, as when El Chivo disappears into the desert’ (Smith, 2003, p. 80).
1 The Ariel is the Mexican Academy of Film Award.