21 Grams dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu

Opens Wed Nov 26.

21 Grams opens with Sean Penn on a life-support system. We begin at the very end, at what would usually be the climax of the drama--and we know by the sound of Penn's desperate breathing, by the sight of the machine that is sustaining what remains of his bandaged body and diminishing mind, that what is to come, the narrative that will explain Sean Penn's unfortunate situation, will be large enough to fill the entire medium of the movie screen.

Sean Penn plays a mathematician who has a bad heart. But he is not in the hospital for his heart condition. He is in the hospital because he has been shot in the chest. Who shot him? And what has all this (his ailing heart, his fatal wound, his final thoughts) to do with 21 grams--the supposed weight of the human soul, and not, as many may suspect, the measurement for a controlled substance? The opening scene in this rather ordinary emergency room that Penn shares with other patients (who, like him, are soon to enter eternity), is exploded into a hundred fragments whose parts form, by the film's end, a total image of Penn's critical condition.

But there is another crucial moment in 21 Grams--one that is actually more important, in terms of the story's structure, than the opening scene in the hospital. It is a car accident that takes place offscreen at an ordinary intersection in Memphis, where the movie is set. Occurring at sundown, the accident suddenly connects the lives of three people who otherwise have nothing in common--the mathematician with a bad heart, the housewife recovering from a drug problem (played beautifully by beautiful Naomi Watts), the ex-con who is a zealous but inevitably doomed born-again Christian (played perfectly by perfect Benicio Del Toro). Their worlds are completely independent; nothing links one to the others until the deadly accident.

Alejandro González Iñárritu's first film, Amores Perros, also has a horrific car accident at its center. That accident occurs at a busy Mexico City intersection and, as in 21 Grams, links in one moment three independent realities--a hobo/hit man who roams the city with a pack of wild-looking dogs, an ambitious and predictably vain supermodel, a street punk who makes money from dogfights. But several differences distinguish the films, the most significant of which being that the characters in Amores Perros, though connected by the accident, never really meet or recognize each other during the course of the film. After the crash that lames the supermodel, injures the street punk, and is witnessed by the hobo, the main characters remain ignorant of how each has affected or been affected by the others. In 21 Grams, the characters do become aware of each other--indeed, they violently and sexually collide.

The other big difference is this: Amores Perros is about a society--its levels, its flaws, its dynamics; 21 Grams is simply about death. Though the characters come from different parts of their society, the director, Iñárritu, does not, as with Amores Perros, emphasize it. What he wants to examine and explode is the very nature of death--what it might be and what it does to us.

"There are two very different ways that I wanted to explore the accident," explains the young and rising Mexican director during an interview I conducted in his hotel room. I must confess that Iñárritu looks more like a movie star than a director. He is strikingly handsome, he has great taste in clothes, and his body is in excellent shape. (Most directors seem overweight and indifferent to the latest fashions.) "The first thing I wanted to explore is the accident itself. You see the consequences of the accident, you see what happens after it and before it, but I never actually show it. This means that people must construct it on their own; they can see it only in their minds. They imagine it. Secondly, I wanted to explore an accident as a metaphor of life. Life as an accident. Life is full of accidents. We have control of nothing. Somebody really is not writing things for us. Things just happen. It's all an accident. And only afterward do we make any sense of it.... The mathematician is trying to do this. He is trying to make sense of the accident. Of life."

Another aspect of 21 Grams is that, though fragmented and seemingly random, it is musical; it feels, moves, and concludes like a massive musical composition. This was something I also felt in Iñárritu's first feature, a certain musicality. The crash we do see and hear in Amores Perros, and don't see but hear in 21 Grams, functions as a leitmotif--a part in a musical composition that, after intervals, is repeated. I recall for Iñárritu a quote by critic Walter Pater that goes, "All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music." Iñárritu's films seem to aspire to that condition, the pure state of music.

"As I have said many times before, I'm more a failed musician than a movie director. I agree with [Walter Pater]. I think music is the most elevated expression that any human being can do. Nothing compares to it. First because it's invisible, and in that way it is very spiritual. Compared to dance or architecture or literature or cinema--these arts are so heavy. They literally crawl or struggle--whereas music at its best is so clear and liberated. I think few directors have really reached moments of that kind of perfection."

21 Grams is not a perfect work of art--it gets to be a bit long toward the end--but as with all great music, it manages to leave, once all of its parts come together, a strong impression on the senses.