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The International Writers Magazine: Film Space

21 Grams
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screen Writer: Guillermo Arriaga
Production Company: East Coast Films Inc. Year: 2003
Cast: Sean Penn, Benicio del Toro, Naomi Watts, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Gabriela Davies

How much does life weigh? This is the question that the narrator at the end of 21 Grams does not ask. It is the question that is left posing in the viewers mind, however, and in retrospect one will find that it is the tagline to the film’s promotion and merchandise. This is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s, director of the 2000 film Amores Perros (‘Dog Love’), first film produced and edited in the USA, and the first one using a cast of renowned American actors.

How many lives do we live? How many times do we die? Other questions that the film indirectly brings are: Where do we go when we die? Who do we leave behind? Why, indeed, do we die? These doubts are universal, and Iñárritu pinpoints them perfectly. In an interview made after the film’s release for the film magazine Sight and Sound, the director claims that his main concern was to look at and work on the concept of eternity, a subject he finds true fascination for.

The plot, a tragic car accident that brings together the lives of three different people, is very reminiscent of Amores Perros, Iñárritu’s previous film. This does not, however, make the film lack in creativity, as the storyline is incredibly complex and the narrative is so rich in singular detail that the two films are almost impossible to be compared. A few vignettes start off the film and then end it, a shot of birds flying across the sky at sunset, an image of a father in a restaurant with his two daughters. The image of the birds flying is beautifully photographed; the deepness of lighting brings an intensity that becomes very unique. Time reversal, scenes in random order, one should expect all of the Iñárritu classics, together with very vivid shades of red, black, and extremes of lighting. Credit must be given to Rodrigo Prieto, director of photography, and the main cinematographer for the production.

Another mention that must be given is to Guillermo Arriaga, the person behind the writing credits for the film. The screenplay is well done, and according to Iñárritu, the film was written and shot in chronological order, but then changed into randomic order during post-production edition. Arriaga is behind the screenplay for Iñárritu’s previous films as well, and both work in conjunction to bring the viewer the powerful stories released on screen.

Benicio del Toro, who has also acted in the British film such as Snatch, plays a fanatic religious ex-con who finds himself involved in many unworthy deeds, one of which is a car accident, the very accident that brings together the three destinies of the main characters. "This is hell", he tells Reverend John (Eddie Marsan) in one of the prison scenes, as he points to his forehead in aggressive desperation. Del Toro is so strong on screen that he protrudes a sort of magnetism, keeping the viewer glued to his every move. Iñárritu describes him as a ‘cinematic animal’, and nothing could be truer.

Sean Penn and Naomi Watts do not fall far behind in their performances. Penn’s ability to convince on screen, even during his silent moments, never ceases to impress. DoP Rodrigo Prieto uses point-of-view shots to create a greater tension between Penn and the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg (who plays the character of Mary, Penn’s partner for some parts of the film), and these work very well. With Naomi Watts, on the other hand, the camera chooses to shoot mostly handheld. This suits Cristina Peck (Watt’s character) very well, as she is so impulsive and desperate that the fragility of the camera movement simply adds to her already prestigious performance.

21 Grams is one of those films where each character’s internal struggle is a force that intensifies together with the plot, which in turn intensifies with the camera work, the lighting and good telecine work, bringing an overall film experience which is infectious and overpowering to watch. The ability to create a multi-layered storyline and still keep the viewer deeply enthusiastic and glued to the screen is a speciality of Iñárritu. The concept of eternity is strongly questioned by the prospect of death, rebirth, impending religious absurdity, and the notions of revenge and forgiveness, which in their turn are also forms of death and rebirth. This is why the title to the film seems very appropriate. In one of the hospital scenes, the character of Sean Penn narrates the definition of the idea of ’21 grams’. "They say we all loose 21 grams at the moment of our death."

The speech goes on to attempt some sort of comprehension of those 21 grams. Is it the soul? Where does it go? And what stays behind? How much goes with those 21 grams, and if this is a true statement or not, is something the viewer must leave to Iñárritu and his production. What one can weigh, however, is the director’s ability to deliver an Oscar-winning (and deserving) film, and to yet again electrify and stir with the emotions of any variety of audience. Most certainly, any film by Alejandro González Iñárritu is a film to be watched, and 21 Grams is no exception to this.
© Gabriela Davies Jan 2007
gabrieladavies at
Amores Perros
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Gabriela Davies

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