Cofi, the Rottweiler protagonist of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros, finds himself at the wrong end of a gun barrel not once or twice, but three distinct times. While this situation resolutely points up the movie’s extreme brutality (the good news is that he only gets shot once), it also reveals the canine actor playing Cofi as a badass supreme. His performance is an unflinching one, lips curled back into a tongue-wagging smile even when noise and hostility threaten. In the face of cocked guns and angry gesticulations, he breathes and slobbers in the knowledge of his own power. This is not stupidity but marrow-deep wisdom: he is as prepared for imminent death as any living being can be.

In spite of Cofi’s beautiful performance, the dogs in the film are pretty much just metaphorical stand-ins for humans: both species are constantly insulted, taught violence and shown capable of instinctively defending themselves. Yet Amores Perros is also about the processes by which humans make dogs into metaphorical stand-ins by projecting onto (other) beasts their hopes and failures. In each of its three parts and across its excruciating two-and-a-half hour runtime, we see desperate people transferring their issues onto cute, bewildered canines. In Part One (“Octavio y Susana”), teenage Octavio (Gael García Bernal) falls for the wife of his older brother and decides to earn money to support her (and her baby) by entering Cofi into a series of high-stakes dog fights. Part Two (“Daniel y Valeria”) finds successful model-actress Valeria (Goya Toledo) trying to adjust to sedentary life (after seriously injuring her leg in a motor vehicle collision) with the help of her loyal pooch, Richie, who ends up trapped beneath the floorboards of her construction-in-progress flat. And in Part Three (“El Chivo y Maru”), wild-haired ex-radical El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría) tries to adjust his estranged daughter’s understanding of their relationship while helping Cofi—left for dead after the same car accident that destroyed Valeria’s leg—recover from a gunshot wound.

The proceedings aren’t exactly subtle. To put it as bluntly as the film does, Octavio engages in a dogfight to the death with his brother, Valeria is trapped just like Richie and El Chivo tries to heal his psychic wounds as Cofi recovers from her own physical and psychological injuries. These rather obvious comparisons are well-worn mechanisms for eliciting a shocked sadness that Rodrigo Prieto’s fine-grained, heavy-on-the-blues cinematography and Gustavo Santaolalla’s gently weeping instrumental score enthrallingly aestheticize.

The Y2K-era film critical establishment just couldn’t get enough. After winning a big Critics’ Week award at Cannes (at the same edition of the fest that saw Dancer in the Dark secure the Palme d’Or), it went on to win receive nominations in the foreign-language category at the Golden Globes, Oscars and BAFTA awards (it eventually lost out to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon at all but the BAFTAs). In the dexterous hands of critics, its crudeness became its greatest strength, one both ethical and artistic. They saw it as clearly indebted to the work of Robert Altman and Quentin Tarantino, but less playful postmodern spectacle than guilt-ridden Catholic parable, no fun allowed. There can be little doubt that its looped, doggy doggedness contributed to this response. How can you not get serious about a film with dead dog bodies all over the place? And what is a parable if not an opportunity to remind us that we like dogs have gone astray?

From the vantage point of 2020, Amores Perros feels as unnecessarily sensationalized and deeply cruel as any number of gritty, intertwining-narrative indie films released around the same time: Gummo, Traffic, City of God, Crash. Initially understood as waking apathetic arthouse audiences from their postmodern slumber, these movies actually had the exact opposite of their intended effect. Rather than disrupting games of textual amusement, they intensified the pleasures of such games by upping the stakes in terms of violence and authenticity. The perros weren’t actually perishing, but why advertise that that’s the case (before the end credits, that is), when paying audiences are all too ready to imagine the post-Soviet, still-third world as entirely uncivilized?

Amores Perros turned out to be Alejandro González Iñárritu’s box-office-successful bargaining chip that skyrocketed him to international fame. His next two films—21 Grams and Babel, parts two and three of the director’s “Trilogy of Death”—would feature an impressive assortment of major cinema players (Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro), and it helped his case that he had already discovered a star in the young, glowy-eyed Bernal.

But it’s really the dog behind Cofi who should have ended up a household name out of all this, and the fact that he didn’t merely highlights the film’s point about people using dogs for their own purposes instead of acknowledging their autonomy or locating innovative methodologies for human-canine symbiosis. This is hammered home so thoroughly that international arthouse cinema would have no choice but to respond with a slew of critical alternatives that place dogs more firmly at their respective centers (see White God, for example, or Los Reyes). With this in mind, the dramatic final image of Amores Perros seems a hopeful gesture towards progress for pups: Cofi and El Chivo saunter off into the distance, and duration lets us see that it’s the dog who leads the way.

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