Mexican Menagerie Life might go to the dogs in Amores Perros, but Alejandro González Iñárritu's debut is heavenly

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Director alejandro gonzález iñárritu wanted a "big bang" at the center of his astonishing first feature, Amores Perros-something that would slap it into rambunctious life, rather as the bigger astronomical bang did our universe eons ago. He found it in the car crash that opens his movie-a sudden, sickening blend of violently torn metal, wailing sirens, desperate screams and blood-lots of blood.

The intricately structured screenplay by novelist Guillermo Arriaga keeps reverting, ever more intimately and horrifically, to that crash, not merely showing it as the major figures in three intertwined stories experience it, but also letting us see their lives prior to and after the disaster. Iñárritu, 37, who has made hundreds of TV commercials in Mexico City, consciously intends his movie (released in Australia this month) to be a portrait of his "dangerous, beautiful" hometown. The film is muy español, a portrait that blends harsh realism with a curious tenderness. It is also muy Buñuel, but without his conscious surrealism and with a fierce, cinematic energy that is uniquely Iñárritu's.

He sums up his film this way: "It doesn't make any difference if you are rich or poor, handsome or ugly; we are all very vulnerable, very fragile. Look at Princess Di ..." That sense that even hair-trigger lives, always poised on the edge of self-destructive lunacy, deserve to be sympathetically understood is Amores Perros' redeeming grace. It is what separates its sudden, apparently motiveless episodes of violence from the kind of standard-issue "frivolous entertainment violence" that Iñárritu volubly deplores. It also helps explain the film's enigmatic title, which translates roughly as "Love Is Like a Dog."

The precipitator of the accident, Octavio (Gael García Bernal), is an angel-faced punk who's successfully fighting Cofi, the family dog, in illegal arenas and using the winnings to tempt his brother's pregnant wife into running off with him. Then there's the supermodel Valeria (Goya Toledo), whose smart car and lithe body he almost totals just minutes after she has moved in with her latest lover. Finally, there's the witness, El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría), who has been a college professor and a guerrilla leader, and is now a street person with a cynical sideline as a killer for hire.

Their stories don't relate narratively; they just glance off one another. But they do relate emotionally, "conceptually." As Iñárritu says, "It's very simple: you get to know people through their dogs." Take Octavio. His relationship with Cofi is amiable but casual-until a rival handler shoots the dog, whereupon the frenzied Octavio stabs the would-be killer and rushes into his near fatal accident, as maddened by the threat to Cofi as he is by his lover's hesitations and ambiguities.

Take Valeria. She's as fluffy and self-absorbed as her tiny dog Richie. She cannot endure the pain, loneliness and loss that follow the accident. He becomes similarly needy as a result of a mishap that is, at first, more comic than desperate. Their story ends with her staring silently out the window at the blank wall that once held her picture, 10 stories tall, while he snoozes on her lap.

Take El Chivo. His only visible virtue is rescuing stray dogs. Shambling past as the accident happens, he scoops up what cash he can find on the victims-and the grievously wounded Cofi too, adding him to his little menagerie. When the dog, reverting to instinct, kills all El Chivo's other strays, he faces extinction himself.

Except that, unlike Octavio and Valeria, El Chivo is shrewd enough to recognize something of himself in the killer dog, and to begin to make peace with his haunted past. It may be too late for any full-scale reconciliations, but his is the only hopeful story Iñárritu tells, the one that catches this aspect of his belief: "We lose our innocence, our looks, our loves, finally life itself. We are what we lose."

Iñárritu is, for the moment, a winner. His film won an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Film, making him the hottest property in a film industry ever in the shadow of the giant to the north. He has to wonder if he can maintain his singularity. On the other hand, his debut film is as fine-hard, soft, approachable-as any in movie history. Don't bet against him. And don't miss Amores Perros.