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Amores Perros sears its characters (dogs included) to a crisp as it leads them to a kind of redemption.

One doesn't watch Amores Perros (Love's a Bitch) so much as absorb it -- like a body blow. "I wanted to make a movie that smelled of filth," Alejandro González Inárritu has said about his feature directorial debut. He has succeeded beyond perhaps even his wildest dreams. One of this year's Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, Amores Perros is a film of raw power and crippling brutality that exposes viewers to a world drenched in grime, sweat, greed and, finally, unexpectedly, the barest glimmer of hope and grace.

A stunning achievement, thematically, emotionally and artistically, its visceral impact comes as much from the bold, scabrous images that dominate the screen as from the grim, hellish circumstances in which the characters find themselves. Structured as a triptych, the film, set in Mexico City, concerns the lives of three disparate characters whose fates intersect when each is involved in the catastrophic car accident that opens the film.

The first segment, "Octavio and Susanna," is set in the vicious underground world of dog fighting (dogs figure prominently in all three stories). Teenage Octavio (Gael García Bernal) is in love with the wife of his volatile and abusive older brother. To earn the money needed to run away with her, he enters his rottweiler, Cofi, in a series of fights. The level of human violence and destruction parallels that of the dogs in the ring. During the opening scene's high-speed chase, Octavio's automobile spins out of control, plowing into another vehicle.

The driver of that second vehicle is Valeria (Goya Toledo), a beautiful fashion model who has just set up housekeeping with her boyfriend, a married businessman who has left his family for her. Their lives unravel in the second segment, "Daniel and Valeria," when the supermodel must cope with the loss of her physical perfection.

"El Chivo and Maru," the final chapter, focuses on a political revolutionary turned hired killer (Emilio Echevarría), who shuns society but showers affection on his four beloved dogs. His life is irrevocably changed when he witnesses the collision and rescues the injured rottweiler.

This is a difficult film to watch, not only because of the dog-fighting sequences (accomplished through deft camera work and editing as well as the power of suggestion), but also because of the total disregard for life -- human and canine -- that suffuses the film. Violence and cruelty are accepted aspects of everyday life, and few of the characters show any guilt over the pain they inflict upon others. "Masters take after their dogs," Chivo tells a man he has been hired to kill. In fact, the opposite is true: It is the dogs who reflect the attitudes and actions of their owners.

The movie's first and third episodes are the strongest, thanks to their thematically rich plotlines and the psychological conflicts to which they give rise. With its hand-held camera work, helter-skelter editing style and red-hot emotions that seem always on the verge of erupting, "Daniel and Susanna" delivers an in-your-face intensity that proves as compulsive as it is abhorrent. Overly ripe colors, like fruit rotting in the heat, are slathered onto the screen in thick, heavy brush strokes (the extraordinary cinematography is by Rodrigo Prieto). The actors appear to be really living their roles; García Bernal, in particular, gives a memorable performance as the teenage boy.

The "Daniel and Valeria" episode suffers from bland characters -- the curse of the middle class -- and the crises they face are less dramatic and engaging than those of the other two stories. Life lessons are learned but they seem a just punishment rather than a case of Olympian retribution.

In the final episode, the gods unleash their full fury. "El Chivo and Maru," the most poignant of the three segments as well as the most emotionally powerful, recalls the timeless myths of the Greeks or the great tragedies of Shakespeare. As the professor turned revolutionary turned assassin, Echevarría combines a steely edginess with an empathetic world-weariness. An island in a sea of wretched humanity, he considers himself immune to pain until he unexpectedly finds himself at a moral crossroads.

Amores Perros is a film of tremendous complexity and depth, a galvanic force that sends the mind reeling. It's hard to fathom how something so brutal can, at the same time, be so poetic. Yet poetic it is -- and beautiful, too. The movie has an intensity of spirit, a purity of emotion, that suggests that, even on the road to hell, one can find redemption.

 
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