Three Lives Slammed Together at the Scene of a Car Crash

Alejandro Gonzalez Iniarritu’s Amores Perros , from a screenplay by Guillermo Arriago, is one of

the most honored and most expertly articulated Mexican films of recent years. A

nominee for Best Foreign Language Film by both the Academy of Motion Picture

Arts and Sciences and the Foreign Press Association (which doles out the Golden

Globes), this intricately plotted and subtextually coherent slice of violent

life in Mexico City has received a variety of deserved prizes at film festivals

in Tokyo, Cannes, São Paulo, Chicago and Los Angeles. It is nothing if not

kinetic as it speeds its way to a bone-crunching car crash that is witnessed

from three different perspectives by three different characters involved in

contrasting emotional relationships, and ranging in economic and social status

from the lower depths to the high rises of one of the world’s most turbulent

cities.

Oddly, the only unifying element in the three stories is

that there’s a dog of one breed or another, primarily a murderous Rottweiler

that accounts for more canine fatalities than there are human ones. This

flagrant affront to the sensibilities of American pet lovers prompted frantic

disclaimers from the producers to the effect that no dogs were mistreated in

all the canine carnage, most conspicuously in the staged dogfights that are

reportedly commonplace in Mexico City, the stomping ground for a million stray

dogs. To forestall organized boycotts and walk-outs, the American producers

have included in their program notes the following preemptive announcement: “To

find out more about the humanitarian way the dogs of Amores Perros were treated during the making of this film please

ask your local press contact for our five-minute video THE DOGS OF AMORES

PERROS, featuring interviews with the cast, crew and veterinarians of this

amazing motion picture.”

All the canine charisma on display here notwithstanding, the

human performers more than hold their own once the wheels of character

development are set in motion. Consequently, this is a movie that gets better

as it goes along, all the way to the last images of redemption and epiphany.

The direction and script work in tandem to introduce characters at tense moments

before we get to know anything about them, and then slow the pace to give them

more depth and detail. Hence, when we first encounter a young-punk type we

later learn is named Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal), he is behind the wheel of a

speeding car, fleeing some mysterious armed pursuers in a van, and

then-bam!-his car crashes, and we flash back in time to learn how he got

himself into this predicament, and why his dog seems to be bleeding to death.

All the trouble starts when Octavio’s beloved sister-in-law,

Susana (Vanessa Bauche), accidentally allows the family Rottweiler to run off.

When we first see Susana from the back, in a little-girl-ish micro-skirt, we

never imagine that this creature will become the figure of passionate, if

reluctant, adultery. Octavio, her lover, has become enmeshed in the dogfight

racket since his Rottweiler killed a hoodlum’s prize mastiff-killer in the

street. Octavio seeks money to run off with Susana, who resists his advances

until he literally drowns her in his winnings from the dogfights. Though she

succumbs to him physically, she refuses to go off with him, even after he has

engineered the murder of her husband, his brother. At this point, the car

accident intervenes again to introduce us to the second story line.

Valeria (Goya Toledo) was in the car blindsided by Octavio.

We have first seen her as a cover-girl model on a television talk show playing

in Octavio’s house. The accident shatters her leg and her career at the very

moment she has started living with a married magazine executive. In a bizarre,

almost surreal chain of events, she contracts gangrene and loses her leg in a

vain effort to retrieve her little dog from under the floorboards of her

unfinished apartment. Valeria represents life in the fast lane when it is forced

to make an unexpected detour.

The third story line involves a bearded homeless man named

El Chivo (Emilio Echevarria), who is eventually revealed to be a former

revolutionary turned unlikely mob hit man. He rescues the wounded Rottweiler

from Octavio’s car after robbing Octavio, who is gravely injured from the

accident. He nurses the Rottweiler back to health, only to have it kill his

other beloved dogs out of the sheer orneriness of its nature. Simulated or not,

all the dog violence is not for the squeamish. But the final playing out of El

Chivo’s story justifies the gruesomely convoluted means used to achieve it. In

fact, El Chivo’s last speech, lamenting his abandonment of his family for the

cause of the revolution, bears a striking resemblance to the last speech of the

dying warrior regretting the sacrifice of the great love of his life to an

ideal of self-purification in Crouching

Tiger, Hidden Dragon . In both films, a failed cause is blamed for a wasted

life.

A Town In Need of

Some Traffic

Ben Hopkins’ Simon

Magu s, from his own screenplay, is ostensibly set in a small village in

late 19th-century Europe, one in which Jews and gentiles co-exist uneasily in

an economically decaying environment. The problem is that the railroad has

bypassed the town, and without its own train station, the town is losing all

its traditional commerce. What to do?

The obvious answer is to build a local train station in the

path of the railway. But permission must be obtained from the local squire, a

gentle soul who loves poetry (Rutger Hauer). The two applicants seeking to

build the station could not be more different. Maximillian Hase (Sean

McGinley), the wealthy merchant who owns half the town already, would seem to

have the inside track on the bidding for the squire’s land. His only competitor

is Dovid, a young Jewish scholar (Stuart Townsend) with no experience in the

business and very little money. Yet he believes that the building of the

station should be a joint enterprise uniting the Jewish and gentile

communities. By floating this idea successfully to the squire, Dovid also believes he will impress the beautiful widow

Leah (Embeth Daviditz) sufficiently so that she will agree to marry him.

For her part, Leah feels that she is too old for Dovid, but

because she is the last eligible female in the village, he has settled upon her

as his mate. Also, she is suspicious of his attentions to the young Sarah

(Amanda Rayan), who has just returned from school in the city. What Leah has

misunderstood about Dovid’s apparent attentions to Sarah is his need to impress

the squire with a knowledge of poetry.

Into this swirl of intrigue over the railway station walks

the hapless village fool, Simon Magus (Noah Taylor), a self-demonizer who

asserts magical powers on which he subsists for his daily bread. He is

tolerated by his fellow Jews, but he is not allowed to sit with the men in the

synagogue; instead, he is relegated to the balcony with the women and children.

Outraged by this humiliation, he resolves to become a Christian and even enters

a church to pray. Soon he is enlisted by Hase to infiltrate the Jewish

community and report to him on Dovid’s plans for the station. When the squire,

offended by Hase’s ruthless business tactics, awards Dovid permission to use

the land adjoining the station, Hase recruits Simon to implicate the Jewish

community in the most heinous act attributed to it by anti-Semites. Simon seems

to agree, but at the last moment reveals a deeper spirituality than anyone

suspected.

Simon Magus is

ultimately not a movie of deep emotional impact; it is too stylized and

fanciful for that. Yet it expresses a deep and forceful dignity in its

depiction of its characters. The squire, particularly, conveys a gentle passion

for poetry that would seem an antidote to the bigotry that was to engulf the

region less than half a century later. Indeed, the magical train that roars

through the forest with such a promise of prosperity for the Jewish community

would later be the same train carrying the Jews to the Holocaust. This tragic irony

is not the point of Simon Magus ,

which deals instead with the painful memory of a lost world that only a piece

of cinematic poetry can bring to fitful life.

The Three Ages of

Woman

Marzieh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman , from stories

by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, takes us through the three ages of woman in contemporary

Iran with a marvelous gravity and physical grace. The first episode,

particularly, is enchanting and heartbreaking at the same time. A 9-year-old

(Fatemah Cherag Akhar) is told by her mother and grandmother that when her

birthday comes, she will no longer be allowed to play with boys. When the girl

learns that she was born at noon, she realizes that she has a little time left

to play with her friend Hassan. Her grandmother gives her a stick which she can

place on the ground to tell when it is noon, at which time she will put on a

chador forever.

The girl takes the time remaining in her childhood to buy

some candy, which she shares with Hassan through a barred window. Their

exchanges of lollipop sticks through the window are indescribably erotic and

exhilarating in this, the most censored cinema on earth. I am afraid to write

how horrified I was when the grandmother came with the chador; I don’t want to

get a gifted filmmaker in trouble with the authorities. Perhaps we in the West

overreact to the spectacle of a little girl losing her childhood.

In the second episode, a

woman in a bicycle race (Shabnam Toloui) is implored by her husband on

horseback (Sirous Kahvarinegad) to stop disgracing him by taking part in the

unwomanly activity. In the third episode, an old woman who lived a life of

self-deprivation buys out a department store. I didn’t quite get the point

here, but the first episode alone makes The

Day I Became a Woman a must-see entertainment. Three Lives Slammed Together at the Scene of a Car Crash