By Romney, Jonathan
The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Four years ago, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's debut feature Amores Perros gave Mexico a greater prominence on the world cinema map than it had had for years. With the success of Alfonso Cuarn's Y tu mama tambien a year later, pundits forecast a Mexican renaissance to sweep the world. It hasn't quite happened yet, although Cuarn - already an old Hollywood hand - has directed the next Harry Potter film. Inarritu, meanwhile, has confounded admirers by making his second film 21 Grams in the US, in English and with a cast of Hollywood names - Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio del Toro. One thing remains the same, however - as in Amores Perros, Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga have made a film about three people whose lives are dramatically affected by a car crash.
But 21 Grams definitely does not tread old ground, insists Inarritu, a former radio DJ and a remarkably genial sort for someone who has made such an uncompromisingly harrowing film. "Even if it sounds familiar, this story is completely different. All Amores Perros and this one have in common is that there are people with eyes and a nose and mouths and ears. I feel this film will affect people in a deeper way than Amores Perros. The fact is, I think Amores Perros is more exotic. This film is more intimate, and the characters are closer to everyone's life."
He continues: "Anybody can lose their health any day or lose a family member, or lose our dreams or faith - that makes a film sometimes very uncomfortable for people." What makes 21 Grams truly uncomfortable - and truly fascinating - is its uncompromisingly challenging structure. Amores Perros was already a formidable feat of intricate construction, with its three interlocking storylines, but it looks almost simplistic alongside 21 Grams - a narrative jigsaw of episodes arranged in an order that at first sight appears entirely random. This shape, says Inarritu, was inspired partly by Michael Haneke's similarly film-in-fragments Code Unknown, partly by novelist Arriaga's long-standing devotion to William Faulkner.
Making sense of 21 Grams is by no means easy, but nowhere near as difficult as it initially looks, Inarritu insists. "It's an experimental structure which in the end is a very simple one. Once people get the code, everything comes together and there's no problem if I jump from here to here, because people understand the rules. Sometimes people tell me, `I was completely lost in the first 25 minutes, but then the reward was so big.'"
It's hard to resist searching for hidden patterns in the film, especially given the scene in which Penn - as a mathematician reprieved from a fatal heart condition - gives an impromptu lecture on the hidden beauty of numbers. You wonder whether Inarritu and Arriaga had their laptops running algorithms on the script. In fact, says Inarritu, the jumps from sequence to sequence were dictated purely by emotional logic. Nevertheless, he says, there is a mathematical - or at least, philosophical - premise behind the film.
"Before we shot it, I read an article in The New York Times in which a mathematician was interviewed about coincidence - about how much a coincidence really is a coincidence, not just a possibility that's in the air but we don't see it. Coincidence is more normal than we think. Supposedly we are all seven people from everybody. …