Saturday, April 10, 2010

Mexico: Amores perros (Love’s a Bitch); 2000; directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

Three storylines intertwine in this tale of very different people whose separate lives briefly collide at the scene of a car crash. To begin with, brothers Octavio and Ramiro live together with Ramiro’s wife, Susana, and their son. They’re a struggling and tense family. Ramiro is an angry, abusive cashier by day and thief by night, while Octavio is in love with Susana and harbors a desire to run away with her (though she'll need some convincing about the idea.) His chance arises when their friendly Rottweiler, Cofi, kills a dog fighter’s Pit Bull Terrier. Realizing Cofi’s potential as a fighting dog, Octavio enters the cruel, bloody world of that “sport,” and suddenly starts coming home with a lot of spending money. Meanwhile, he’s sleeping with Susana. However, he has to have his brother taken out after Ramiro threatens Cofi’s life unless he gets half of “their” dog’s winnings (and temporarily disappears with his wife and baby.) Troubles escalate further when Cofi is entered into a high-stakes fight against a German Shepherd Dog. The fight ends abruptly once Cofi is shot; Octavio rushes him to his new car, returns to stab the offender, Jarocho, and then sets off a wild car chase that ends in a horrible collision.

The second plotline follows Brazilian supermodel and media star Valeria, and her lover Daniel, who recently decided to ditch his wife and two daughters for her. Octavio’s car smashed into Valeria’s, leading to the eventual amputation of her badly mangled leg, and of course, to the termination of her highly successful contract with the perfume company Enchant. As time passes her relationship with Daniel becomes troubled as well. Throughout this trying period of Valeria’s life, she enjoys the faithful company of her beloved little dog, Richie, who gets lost for a long time underneath the floorboards of her new apartment after chasing a ball down a hole, but manages to survive again.

In the backdrop of both of the previous stories has been the activity of a mysterious and scruffy old man, who appears to live on the streets, push a cart about, have several mutts for friends…and also be a hired assassin. As it turns out, this man is known as El Chivo (real name Martin), and he abandoned his wife and daughter (Maru) long ago to head out and try to actively change the world. Now, having failed to do so, he has observed his wife’s funeral and watched his daughter living from afar, observing her life in photographs by sneaking into her bedroom. In the meantime, El Chivo rescues Cofi from the car crash and helps him recover from his injury. Sadly, Cofi’s dog-aggression had been encouraged for so long that the Rottweiler ended up killing all of El Chivo’s other canine friends when left alone with them. Distraught, El Chivo moves to shoot Cofi, but cannot bring himself to hurt the dog.

Following that, a man comes to him requesting that he perform one more assassination, something he had no desire to continue doing. In the end, El Chivo kidnaps the target and traps him inside his temporary home with the man who’d claimed he was a cheat and wanted him dead—his half-brother and business partner. Believing that the first brother is a liar, Martin leaves them both tied up with a gun in between them on the floor, to determine their own fates. He and Cofi then leave, and he works up the courage to enter Maru’s home again and leave a message on her telephone, stating his existence and feelings, sorrows, and regrets. He still loves her and wants to see her again someday when he has the courage to do that. Pasting a photo of his old clean-shaven face over an image of his younger one in her bedroom, the old man sets down the frame and leaves once more. Meanwhile, Octavio has also been injured in the accident, but is still determined to run off with the now-angry Susana, who is more resistant than ever.

Love, in all its infinitely varied forms, is the one consistent theme that runs through each of these stories. (Its original Spanish title does the film a little more symbolic and thought-provoking justice than the American one, although the latter is neither untrue nor inapplicable.) Each of the main characters has at least one ‘perro.’ Dogs are generally often used as symbols of pure, perfect, unconditional love. Humans, on the other hand, and definitely in this film, are another story altogether. They can only aspire to what love means for dogs. Most characters here have some dubious morals at best. Susana might arguably be the best overall person in the entire thing. Octavio seems like a good man, and it’s easy at first to like him and hate Ramiro, yet for money Octavio subjects his loyal companion Cofi to brutal fights in which he kills other dogs. Could someone who truly loves his dog do that? He also has his brother beaten and killed--and regardless of how bad a man Ramiro was, or how deserving he may have seemed, or how good it feels to have him out of the picture, this can still raise further questions, objections, and doubts as to Octavio’s conscience, especially when compounded with some of his other actions. Interestingly enough the issue of murdering one’s own brother arose in the last film starring Bernal, and centered on that actor’s character then, too.

Valeria lies to the public about her love life--in reality, she’s with a man who’s been having an affair, cheating on his wife, and leaving her for the model. Apparently, Valeria has no problem with any of that, despite Daniel’s daughters; in fact, she openly disrespects his family and considers them stupid. And El Chivo/Martin was a complicated, conflicted person: an idealistic, opinionated, headstrong guerilla who believed in making positive changes in the world; a paid assassin who manipulated and tortured and took human life, but still respected it, and eventually wanted to end his business of killing; a man who had failed as a husband and father but deeply regrets it, and just can’t seem to find the strength to try and reconnect with the only family member he has left.

For all of their failings, those characters and others are not without their ability to love intensely, nor their willingness to do or to sacrifice anything for the sake of that love--be it for a woman (say, an in-law), a man, a cause (perhaps worldly justice), a wife, a daughter, or, indeed, a dog.

As a fanatical dog lover, I liked this movie partially due to their significant presence, but naturally found the fighting scenes very difficult to watch--more because of the knowledge that such hideously evil acts occur in real life than anything else. At least, I would very much hope that by the year 2000 no animals would have to be harmed in the making of a movie, even in countries that possibly don’t have a set-monitoring entity equivalent to the American Humane Association. Sadly, this cruelty persists in parts of the world. What I read on the IMDb, however, regarding the dogs being heavily sedated in order to appear dead, was hopefully a harmless truth.

The other technical and narrative aspects of the film were mostly superb as well and synthesized perfectly, from the basic staging of shots to the skillful interweaving of the three plotlines. In particular I felt that it was quite well cast and acted. Each performer (including the dogs) was very real and believable in his or her role, and seemed to have fully inhabited it. The characters felt alive. The slower, more subtle dramatic sequences were counterbalanced by moments of great suspense throughout, meaning that the issue of the film’s potentially being a tad overlong is not an unbearable fault.

India: Bombay; 1995; directed by Mani Ratnam

It’s literally love at first sight when Shekhar and Shaila set eyes upon one another. The hitch is that he is a Hindu, while she is a Muslim. Regardless, the journalist relentlessly pursues the young woman until she declares her eternal devotion to him as well. However, both of their families are outraged when Shekhar reveals his intent to marry Shaila Bano, forcing the couple to elope to Bombay (now known again as Mumbai.) There, they stay with Hindu landlords and several children who disrupt their attempts at intimacy. Finally, though, Shaila becomes pregnant and gives birth to twins Kabir and Kamal. Much happens during the ensuing years: Shekhar’s father and Shaila’s parents swallow their pride and come to stay with their children and grandchildren, although they’re not through bickering with each other. Shekhar is promoted from news editor to reporter. And when the twin boys are almost burned alive in a riot, it’s just the beginning of the vicious war that is breaking out between Muslims and Hindus.

The family’s happy life is turned asunder by the extreme violence, initially ignited by the demolition of holy mosques. The mixed family is caught in the middle of all this conflict, with two young boys confused as to their own religious identities. Ultimately, the love and loyalty of all the members of this united family prove stronger than any inclination toward violence against one another. Tragically, just as they are beginning to respect each other, the in-laws perish in a fire at their apartment building, and Shaila and Shekhar again become separated from their children. As they all search desperately, they see and experience the full, terrible extent of the senseless ongoing violence, which costs the lives of far too many kids and other innocents. At last, Shekhar, who has been delving into these religious differences through his work, has had enough of watching all of these people, including many he knows, kill each other. Gaining the attention of everyone in the street around him, he forces them all to look at the pointless carnage and destruction they’re causing and understand that they are simply allowing themselves to act as pawns in a politically motivated conflict. As his family is reunited once more, everyone drops their weapons, lets go of their anger, and makes peace.

“Act I” of this musical extravangaza is a familiar romantic story of the “Romeo & Juliet” variety, told many times over the centuries in literature, theatre and song: the characters whose relationship is forbidden, the man and woman madly in love, but from opposing sides, whose families attempt to keep them apart. Shekhar and Shaila are archetypes of true ‘soul mates,’ two creatures who can't live without one another, and who also happen to be stuck with the mission of bringing two hateful groups together as one. “Act II” exemplifies another theme that is visited again and again in all forms: the uselessness and waste of war, the blindness of humans to their true brotherhood with all other humans, their allowance of any differences of faith or viewpoint to become insurmountable walls dividing “us” from “them” and thus leading to disrespect and harm towards the “others.” As is probably befitting a musical love story, “Bombay” has an uplifting and optimistic ending. It's also fairly standard for the first half of such a story to contain the brightest parts, while foreshadowing and starting to introduce future dangers and unraveling. The second act will typically have the darker overall tone, with hell eventually breaking loose in some form or other.

Being a big fan of musicals in general, I greatly enjoyed this film, which is the quintessential “masala” movie out of ‘Bollywood.’ (For instance, the second song, in which the main couple comes together at the old fort by the sea, is a prime example of picturisation.) And unlike the standard Broadway- or Hollywood-styled movie musical which may tend to jump rather rapidly from song to song, “Bombay” had more plot substance in between fewer song-and-dance sequences, making it seem more like a regular film which happened to contain some musical numbers inserted at strategic points to further the story and enhance its emotions.

Despite the occasional humorous feature (i.e., out-of-sync lip-synching or Michael Jackson-esque costumes on male dancers), “Bombay” was both lightheartedly entertaining and deadly serious. I find the type of singing and choreography (whether classical, contemporary, or blended), as well as the traditional costumes (worn more by the women) found in films such as this one to be quite beautiful. The two videos below are ones that I have long enjoyed not only for the comical “translations” (which are not to be taken seriously!), but also for the music videos themselves--two among the many things of which I was strongly reminded by the movie.

The only Indian (and possibly the only foreign-language) film that I currently own is a 2008 animated feature aptly called “Roadside Romeo,” a joint production of Walt Disney & Yash Raj Films that was created entirely in India and directed by Jugal Hansraj. I love this fun movie and would certainly recommend it to anyone else who enjoyed “Bombay,” because it is essentially a Bollywood musical that replaces human characters with anthropomorphic dogs. Like “Bombay,” the plot revolves around a male main character who falls instantly for his love interest, but must fight to be with her.

Romeo and Laila are basically the Shekhar and Shaila of this animated Indian adventure which pays homage to the 'Bollywood genre.'