21 Grams: A Focus Features’ 20th Anniversary Film For Hispanic Heritage Month
Alejandro González Iñárritu remaps contemporary cinema with his first English-language film
After the international success of his debut feature Amores Perros, Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu started on his first English-language film with 21 Grams. Working with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, Iñárritu crafted a stunning metaphysical thriller about how fate, hope, and chance collide in our everyday lives. Both visceral and thoughtful, 21 Grams amazed American critics. The New York Times proclaimed that “the depths of intimacy that the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu plumbs here are so rarely touched by filmmakers that 21 Grams is tantamount to the discovery of a new country.” To celebrate Focus Features' 20th year anniversary, we’re highlighting this October Focus films like 21 Grams for Hispanic Heritage Month.
For a film about chance, the idea for the story quite literally came from an accident. Driving by a fatal car crash in 2000, screenwriter Arriga began thinking how such terrible moments in our lives transform us in both good and bad ways. Soon a drama about interconnected lives arose in Arriga’s imagination and he called Iñárritu to tell him. “Okay, write it. I’m with you," Iñárritu simply responded. Before filming, Iñárritu titled the film by referencing a belief that 21 grams is the amount of weight a body loses when a person dies.
In translating the screenplay to film, Iñárritu developed his own cinematic language to tie together the lives of the three main characters. Sean Penn plays Paul, a math professor in need of a heart transplant. Naomi Watts is a recovering addict whose sobriety is shattered when her husband and children die in a hit-and-run crash, an accident that ironically provides Paul the heart he needs. And Jack (Benicio Del Toro) is a born-again ex-con whose criminal behavior triggers the events that set everything in motion. This remarkable cast—both Watts and Del Toro were nominated for Academy Awards®—provide the talent necessary to bring Iñárritu’s vision to the screen.
Weaving together the three stories in a non-linear narrative, Iñárritu creates what he refers to as “the jigsaw of our lives,” a seemingly chaotic construction that comes into focus over time. "It's an experimental structure which in the end is a very simple one,” Iñárritu explains. “Once people get the code, everything comes together .”
For The Christian Science Monitor, Iñárritu’s innovative cinematic style serves a higher purpose by arranging “complex patterns that mirror the emotional and physical complexities of the lives he's exploring.” Empire adds, “The resulting film is a genuinely thrilling emotional experience—often unbearably tense, occasionally heartbreakingly sad, ultimately uplifting but always, always riveting.” 21 Grams also introduced American audiences to Iñárritu’s cinematic sensibility, a vision that would be awarded time and time again. Iñárritu would go on to be nominated three times for Best Director by the Academy Award®, winning twice.