Amores perros: The Dogs That Heralded the Millennium
The year 1999 was several months old when I entered Los Guajolotes, a restaurant that, like so many others in Mexico City, has now disappeared. I was walking to my table when a person who appeared to live on the streets approached and greeted me with strange familiarity. Who was this man who seemed to have fallen from grace? His shaggy, graying mane and scraggly beard made him look like a prophet of the apocalypse; his fingernails were long, sharp, and worn from use, as though he had arrived there by clawing through the walls.
It took me a little while to recognize Emilio Echevarría, the marvelous actor I had worked with on a number of projects. He smiled at my confusion and excitedly explained his appearance: he was preparing for a film role as a guerrilla turned street scavenger. Many of the people involved in the project were first-timers. Emilio was a veteran in this adventure. “You’ll see,” he promised, eyes alight, his fingernails scratching the tablecloth. This was my first glimpse of Amores perros (2000), the film that would pull back the veil on our national reality.
The Moment of Change
The beginning of a new millennium is naturally
laden with omens. In Mexico, the year 2000 coincided with the end of a
political era. For the first time in seventy-one years, the Institutional
Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost the presidential election. Vicente Fox, the
candidate of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), led the opposition to
a win. An unusual figure in Mexican politics for the time, Fox came to power as
a charismatic populist who rode on horseback, wore cowboy boots, and
demonstrated his rejection of the system by kicking cardboard coffins adorned
with the PRI emblem. His image far exceeded his plans for governing.
After seven decades in power, the PRI had betrayed the progressive ideals of the revolution from which it took its name, becoming known for its members’ use of public funds for private benefit. Corruption, inequality, violence, and racial and gender discrimination were the hallmarks of a profoundly worn-down political system. The hope for a “government for change” sprang less from the skills of the winning candidate and his party, and more from the despair of a country that was coming apart at the seams, and in need of intensive therapy.
It is no accident that the opening scene of Amores perros, released in Mexican theaters just a couple of weeks before Fox’s victory, shows a gravely wounded animal and culminates in a dramatic car crash. The three stories that intersect in the film represent various national tensions, ones that have often come to a head in such scenes of violence. With their film, writer Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro G. Iñárritu simultaneously created their own world and painted a portrait of the social context from which it originated.
Since 1993, Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, on the border with the United States, has been the scene of femicides. In 1994, as the North American Free Trade Agreement—an accord among Mexico, the U.S., and Canada—went into effect, many dreamed of their country as a first-world paradise; meanwhile, in the state of Chiapas, the Zapatistas rose up to protest NAFTA and the shameful conditions in which Indigenous people lived. Amores perros captures such contradictions: some of its characters aspire to glamour, while others struggle to survive amid distressing poverty and social injustice.
The film’s settings form a crucial component of its social world. Iñárritu refused to depict a postcard Mexico, and there are no monuments or landmarks to be seen in the film. Mexico City is recognizable by its hidden spaces: its rooftops, alleys, backyards. The city becomes sensorial, intimate; you can almost smell it. And the film’s interiors are no less evocative: in one lower-middle-class home, we see crucifixes, an altar, and a poster of Pope John Paul II (who visited Mexico five times).
But by 2000—though burning candles were kept on many such home altars—corruption, not faith, was the primary fuel of the Mexican social dynamic. Symbolically, every transaction in Amores perros takes place in cash, forming part of the informal economy. According to official statistics, today some 56.7 percent of the population in Mexico does unregulated work, which generates 22.5 percent of the gross domestic product. This “hidden” economy works out of the purview of the Ministry of Finance. The police also take advantage of this state of affairs. In Iñárritu’s debut feature, a plainclothes officer plays intermediary for an executive who wants to hire a contract killer. And an organizer of clandestine dogfights shows the spot where bets are placed and says proudly, “This is my business. No taxes, no strikes, no unions.” On this turf, payments and earnings depend on secret deals.
The Absent Father and the “Secret Sun”
In 2020, two indicators of social decay, which have worsened due to the home confinement necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, fuel national debate: the breakdown of the family and domestic violence. Both are present in Amores perros. The first section of the film portrays a woefully mistreated woman who, despite everything, is still expected to provide “the warmth of home.” On the one hand, she endures the abuse of her husband, while also caring for their child; on the other, she must deal with the wild advances of his younger brother. She is trapped in a world of male desire. The brothers reenact the story of Cain and Abel; they fight between themselves, expecting her surrender.
In 1950, in his celebrated analysis of the national character, The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz defined the burden borne by the mother in traditional Mexican culture: she is expected to be a “secret and immobile sun,” a star with hidden powers.
The fragmentary story conceived by Arriaga and Iñárritu reflects a broken reality. Its form mirrors its content. Mexico appears as a country in tatters, where absence is as significant as presence. There, the main ghost is the father.
The PRI exerted a patrimonial dominance. Its authoritarian power was not that of a dictatorship but that of a patriarchy that subjugated its illegitimate children, offering them help in only discretionary ways. Another Paz title describes this role: The Philanthropic Ogre—a monster that confers favors.
The most influential novel in all of Mexican literature—Pedro Páramo, by Juan Rulfo, published in 1955—deals with the father figure. The protagonist is one of the many illegitimate sons of a cacique, an oppressive, deadbeat patriarch.
Amores perros takes place in a landscape of absent fathers.
The first story deals with two brothers at odds with each other. This struggle
happens in a void: their father has disappeared, and their mother confines
herself to a shadowy existence cooking and cleaning in the house. In the second
story, a man abandons his family for the sake of a fashionable idyll (a romance
with a top model), which leads to tragedy. The third and final tale shows a
father who left his life behind to become a guerrilla and change the world; too
late, he realizes he has not even been able to help his own daughter.
In these three stories, each depicting a different social class, it is the women who wind up suffering most: One woman is the prize that two brothers fight over like dogs. The model is mutilated twice over, first culturally and then physically—after being forced to become a commercial object of desire, she loses a leg as a result of a car accident. A wife puts up with calls from her husband’s lover; after he leaves her, she receives a call from him, but he doesn’t say a word.
Companions in Good and Evil
Masterfully, the different
stories unite through an essential figure in Mexican life: the dog. The title
of the film comes from a colloquial expression: something “muy perro” is
something strong, savage, brutal. An “amor perro” is a love that hurts.
In Aztec culture, humans required a special companion to guide them to the underworld. “The dog, being a nocturnal creature, knows all the paths and sees spirits in the darkness,” writes archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, who led the excavation of the Templo Mayor site in what is now Mexico City. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the city of Tenochtitlán, the Mexica people there were beginning to replace human sacrifice with that of the animals they had closest at hand. They did not choose lambs, as Christians had; they chose dogs.
Today, perhaps as many as two million street dogs wander Mexico’s capital, forming part of the city’s fabric. At dawn, on any street, one may hear the omnipresent witness of the city: a dog howling in semidarkness.
Like cocks, dogs can be fighting animals. In Amores perros, Octavio (Gael García Bernal, in his first feature-film role) risks his dog’s life by entering him in a savage economy of life-or-death bouts. A very different story in the film is the one of the model Valeria (Goya Toledo), whose small pet dog—a symbol of celebrity and status—gets lost in the netherworld of her apartment, a space under the floor inhabited by rats. Finally, El Chivo, who took up arms as a guerrilla in the 1970s, scours the city in search of useful junk, accompanied by a pack of mutts. El Chivo has gone from violence for a cause to contract killing. He is another fighting dog.