There are no walls in the ocean," Alejandro Iñárritu says about the international flavor of his latest film, 21 Grams. Indeed, these words -- a paraphrase of an old proverb from his native country of Mexico -- seem to grasp the intent of this picture, which closed this year's New York Film Festival.
The film's title, 21 Grams, refers to the weight that the body loses at death -- supposedly the weight of the human soul and, incidentally, the same weight as a hummingbird or a bar of chocolate. The film follows three people whose lives are thrown together by tragedy as they discover how truly heavy those 21 grams can be.
Paul Rivers, an ailing college professor, is played by Sean Penn in what may be the most moving role of his career. Through guilt and redemption, Rivers envelops, with an almost Byronic outlook, the dark shadows that hang over him, destroying yet simultaneously sustaining his hopeless world. The unfortunate consequence of Penn's exceptional performance, however, is that he manages to eclipse co-stars Naomi Watts and Benicio del Toro. Watts plays Christine Peck, a grieving mother who struggles with an overplayed drug addiction. Del Toro, as Jack Jordan, is a convict turned convert, spouting Bible verses left and right with lackluster conviction. Their characters are simply unable to command the same sympathy as Penn's role, even to the point of leaving the audience cold at times.
However, the film still manages to hold up under the disparities of its actors, deriving much of its artistic sensibility from its strikingly unique narrative style. Much like Iñárritu's first film, the internationally acclaimed Amores Perros, the story of 21 Grams is told not chronologically but in what Iñárritu asserts is a more universally accessible timeline of human emotion. The film flows with the tensions and crises of its characters, beginning with a relatively laid-back pace and smooth visual presentation then evolving, unrestricted by time, into the grainy pictures of conflict and internal struggle.
This approach to filmmaking -- the attempt at provoking the audience with a film whose visual and emotional qualities might surpass the simple words of its characters -- is a style that is becoming associated with the Mexican director.
Even before the completion of Amores Perros, Iñárritu began drafting the script for 21 Grams with longtime friend and collaborator Guillermo Arriaga. The two initially wrote the script in their native Spanish, but, as the story developed, they began to consider producing the film in the United States. Iñárritu described the final decision to develop the film in English as an attempt to expand beyond the borders of any one nation. "There was never a preconceived concept," he said at a press conference. "I wanted to tell the story the best way I could, [and] the English language is a universal code."
Similarly, Iñárritu chose Memphis as a backdrop because he thought the city could provoke that borderless experience he was after. The director described the city as having an identity all its own: "Memphis is unique -- the heart of America with a nostalgic sad feeling, [yet] it reminds me a little bit of a Latin American city." Production designer Brigitte Broch, another Amores Perros alum, described the city's versatility: Memphis "is history, authenticity, and soul. There were different layers of textures. We wanted the environments of each character to talk for them, and Memphis had what we needed."
But Memphis had more to offer than simple scenery. As Memphians scan the eclectic images on-screen, they might stumble upon more familiar faces than expected. From diners enjoying their meals at the Arcade restaurant to health enthusiasts working out in Grace-St. Luke's gym, Iñárritu strove to cast extras who could, whenever possible, actually be what they were portraying. Returning Amores Perros cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto described the resulting images as "realism with an edge."
The final product, Iñárritu said, has "the smell of the city" -- the essence of Memphis playing perfectly into the wide-reaching themes of loss, love, obligation, and faith. But, Prieto explained, "We didn't want this to be 'Memphis, Tennessee,' where the story is happening, but any place in America -- or in the world, even. That is the atmosphere and texture of this city."