Picture a Mexico where young punks blare rock en espanol from their GMC trucks, yuppies drive BMWs to fancy hotels for afternoon trysts with their mistresses, thugs with spiked hair hold up local supermarkets, vicious dogs prowl the streets looking for prey, eking out a meager existence in their quest for survival.
No strolling mariachis. No cactuses. No sombreroed bandidos drinking tequila. No Indian peasants smiling meekly-images of Mexico usually seen on the big screen.
The modern Mexico-with Internet access and cable television, and inhabitants who have lost love, experienced tragic deaths and redeemed themselves from their sins-is what director AlejandroGonzalez Inarritu wanted to capture in his first film, "Amores Perros" (which literally means dog love but is a popular way of saying love can be a downer).
The film, which opens Friday in Los Angeles, grabs you by the throat, according to many people in Hollywood who have seen the film. It is a film that demands the international entertainment industry wake up to Mexico's role in contemporary life.
From the opening scene of panicked young punks driving through the streets of Mexico City, a chase that ends in an explosive car wreck, the viewer is in for an intense ride. The three-hour film interweaves four stories, playing them in their past, present and future, in a fast-action style, while it serves as a meditation on the loneliness of modern society and on human frailty. Most controversial is Gonzalez's use of graphic dogfights as a metaphor for the dehumanization of society. But his background as a commercials director and his love of literature combine for a modern, very American-style action movie grounded in a strong narrative more similar to a novel than a film.
The film's critical success so far is perhaps surprising considering its violence and intensity. It was the first Mexican movie to be nominated for a foreign-language Oscar in more than 25 years. It has received awards at film festivals around the world, including the International Critics' Week Grand Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival.
Gonzalez has found himself the center of attention. He is being courted by the major studios. Ang Lee, Pedro Almodovar and Jonathan Demme have sought him out to tell him they loved his movie. The Mexican consulates in New York and Los Angeles have hosted screenings and cocktail parties, proudly showing off a film that 30 years ago likely would have been banned by the government for its content.
It has almost been too much to take in. The 37-year-old director now finds himself wondering which path he will follow: Will he go to Hollywood? Will he stay in Mexico? Will he try to find the best of all worlds and make movies all over the world?
One thing is certain: He is a long way from where he started.
"I had to fight against a lot of taboos: being Mexican, being a first-time director and coming from [a] commercials background," Gonzalez said over lunch at a Century City hotel. "I think the movie broke some stereotypes."
Many in Hollywood were impressed by the film's vitality.
"My reaction in seeing this movie was, 'This guy has the skills to become a big director in our business,"' said Lorenzo di Bonaventura, president of worldwide theatrical production at Warner Bros. "He has a chance to play on a global scale, not just as a regional director. You don't get to see this level of filmmaking very often."
Producer Mark Johnson, who is also chairman of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences foreign-language film committee, said the film's nomination was a turning point for the traditionally stodgy selection panel.
"I was particularly impressed that we [nominated] 'Amores Perros' because it is such a difficult movie-it's an in-your-face movie," he said. "I think this shows that there is a vibrancy and a nonconformism going on in [the Mexican film industry]. It demonstrates that what is going on in Mexico is on a world-class level."
To Johnson, the best movies come from directors with a very personal and defined sense of what they want to say. Like the work of young directors who preceded him-Danny Boyle ('Trainspotting'), Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights") and Quentin Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction")-Gonzalez's film was like a primal scream, demonstrating a raw talent for storytelling on the big screen.
His passion to make a film had been bubbling for a while. Though he made a successful living from commercials, he was frustrated. After he dedicated more than 10 years to advertising, the industry's superficiality had begun to wear him down.
"I was filming in Paris and New York with big budgets-I was a fortunate but unhappy man," he said. "That is the hardest thing to be because when you have a reason to be unhappy it's easier. When things are seemingly going really well and you don't have an apparent reason to be unhappy, it is horrible. Advertising can give you a lot of money, but it steals your soul."