Mexican movies don't often make their way to United States theaters. But there's a thriving motion-picture industry in this neighbor to the south, and this year's Academy Award race found one Mexican production - Amores Perros - in hot contention to be named best foreign-language film.
It didn't win, despite a long list of prior prizes at festivals around the world. A deciding reason might be its unusual approach to a sensitive subject.
Almost everyone enjoys a story about dogs, but "Amores Perros" steers away from the sentimentality often associated with this genre. Instead it spins a cluster of intertwined tales in which the lives of canines can be as hard and unhappy as those of the humans around them.
The film's first story, "Octavio and Susana," is the most striking in this respect. After a jolting car-crash scene that sets the rest of the movie in motion, we see the build-up to that event in the story about a teenager who enters the world of dogfighting as a way of financing a plan to run off with his older brother's wife.
This leads to the automobile accident we saw earlier, which itself sparks key events in the other stories. "Daniel and Valeria" focuses on an older man who stakes his future on romance with a much younger woman, then finds her incapacitated by injuries related to the car mishap. The crash also shapes the third story, "El Chivo and Maru," about an aging intellectual whose cynical attitudes have led him to a furtive and alienated life.
"Amores Perros" delivers jarring doses of violence and horror, but it finds enough compassion and even humor to be more than worthwhile for moviegoers interested in a thoughtful look at the many ways human lives - and animal lives - can mold and influence one another. It was directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, a former disc jockey and producer who appears to have a bright future, notwithstanding the frequently dark atmosphere of his first feature film.
By contrast with their Mexican counterparts, Iranian movies of recent years have received a large amount of exposure in US theaters and video outlets. Two more worthy of attention arrive this week.
While Iranian culture generally makes women into second-class citizens by Western standards, some of the country's most impressive movies - such as "Leila" and "Two Women," both of which have played on American screens - take a sympathetic, even feministic view of women's problems. This is certainly the case with The Day I Became a Woman, which tells three separate stories centering on female lives.
The first, "Havva," evokes the poignant blend of happiness and trepidation felt by a 9-year-old girl who knows that in just one hour she'll be officially regarded as a woman, with all the responsibilities - and burdens - this new status will bring. The second, "Ahoo," tells the visually stunning tale of a discontented wife who goes on a bicycle excursion against the wishes of her husband, who chases after her on horseback with a series of threats backed up by clan members outraged at her show of independence. The last, "Houra," shows an elderly woman's effort to enter an independent old age by making creative use of some money that's fallen into her hands.
"The Day I Became a Woman" takes a democratic view of different age brackets, as well as different genders. Equally important, it explores the lives of its characters with cinematic as well as social imagination, brilliantly utilizing Iranian settings dominated by desert and sea. Directed by Marziyeh Meshkini from a screenplay by master filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, it's more moving and entertaining than anything on the current Hollywood scene.
Another noted Iranian director, Bahman Farmanara, plays himself in Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine, the semiautobiographical tale of a filmmaker who's having trouble making a film because his creativity is out-of-sync with prevailing cultural and censorship trends. Turning to a project that suits his gloomy mood, he embarks on a documentary about Iranian funeral traditions, only to find himself gloomier than ever as he contemplates the deaths of people he has known - and meets new people, including a troubled woman trying to escape her abusive husband. Energizing his imagination has rewards that renew his affection for life, however.
Like a greater Iranian film of the past decade, Abbas Kiarostami's internationally honored "Taste of Cherry," the modestly produced "Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine" ultimately affirms life as vigorously as it provokes thought.
These films are not rated. 'Amores Perros' contains violence and sex. 'The Day I Became a Woman' and 'Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine' contain no objectionable material.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor