Grade: C+

There’s no denying the cinematic verve and visceral excitement that pervade Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s debut feature, which was among the nominees for the best foreign-language film Oscar this year (it lost, of course, to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). Despite a running time of more than two-and-a-half hours, it never ceases to hold a viewer’s attention, simply as a result of the pulsating energy it displays and the gritty tension it manages to sustain.

Unhappily, “Amores Perros” is almost entirely a surface phenomenon, fascinating to look at but pretty empty beneath a raucously mesmerizing exterior. The script, by Guillermo Arriaga, is heavily influenced by “Pulp Fiction,” and Inarritu’s handling of it is Tarantinoesque, too. The picture is structured as an interlacing trilogy of tales, tied together by a horrendous auto accident (which we see repeatedly from differing perspectives) and by a common canine motif. It begins with the story of Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal), who’s besotted with his sister-in-law Susana (Vanessa Bauche) and enters his dog in brutal fights in order to win the money that he believes will persuade her to run off with him. He’s quite successful, but things don’t turn out as he’d planned, and ultimately he’s involved in the terrible wreck that severely injures Valeria (Goya Toledo), a gorgeous model who’s just set up housekeeping with her married lover Daniel (Alvaro Guerrero). Her incapacitation puts a strain on their relationship, which is accentuated when her beloved pooch gets lost beneath the floorboards of their apartment, and it becomes increasingly unlikely that they can survive as a couple. Meanwhile El Chivo (Emilio Echevarria), an erstwhile guerilla and now a homeless ex-con, spends his time alternately trying to re-establish contact with his estranged daughter and hiring himself out as a hitman to a crooked policeman. He witnesses Octavio and Valeria’s accident and rescues Octavio’s injured dog, which he nurses back to health and adds to his pack of strays. In the film’s third act we watch El Chivo’s final score, involving two well-off half-brothers who, as it turns out, want to kill one another; the way in which the hitman treats them may well remind you of the gruesome storeroom sequence featuring Bruce Willis in “Fiction.” The ending of “Amores” is bleak: no one really comes out on top and everybody’s hopes are dashed. Love, as the title indicates, does not triumph.

The problem is that you can’t care very much about the grimness of the outcome, because all the characters are shallow, pulpish creatures to whom it’s difficult make any true emotional commitment. The actors, to be sure, try to invest them with feelings, but the attempt never rings true: they remain types rather than authentic personalities. Echevarria and Bernal probably come closest to earning audience empathy, but even the people they’re portraying–like all the other characters–ultimately come off as artificial writer’s concoctions rather than genuine human beings.

Adding to the difficulties a viewer has in sympathizing with the individuals who populate the three linked stories is the fact that the narrative is extraordinarily lurid, with image after image that will cause many eyes to turn reflexively away from the screen. (That’s especially true in the sequences which show dogs in distress, either being mauled or lying blood-soaked afterwards. It’s more than a little peculiar that audiences are more likely to be turned off by scenes of animals being brutalized than those of men and women suffering physical torment, but that’s the reality of the society we live in.) In fact the atmosphere of the picture as a whole is dour and unpleasant; even in the middle section, which focuses on the well-off Daniel and Valeria, the film looks distinctly gloomy, and things are much worse in the bookending stories. If the technique of “Amores Perros” is dazzlingly impressive, its overall tone of despondency and misery is equally depressing.

So Inarritu’s picture is a mixed bag. It’s certainly a vibrant exhibition of pure filmmaking pizzazz: many of the sequences the director pulls off have a kinetic energy that’s exhilarating. But the characters on whom it focuses are so disagreeable, and the activities in which they’re engaged so repellent, that you’ll doubtlessly come out of it feeling the need for a long, hot shower. And if you’re the squeamish type (especially about cruelty to animals), you’d best stay away entirely.