On November 21, 2003, the dramatic thriller 21 Grams was released in North American theaters, and became an emblematic work of modern cinema. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and written by fellow Mexican Guillermo Arriaga Jordán, it attracted international attention to Latino filmmakers.
With a searing, timeless quality, 21 Grams follows three strangers – Paul Rivers (Sean Penn), Jack Jordan (Benicio del Toro), and Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts) – whose lives intersect after a tragic car accident. It depicts the protagonists’ emotional journeys as they try to find new meaning in their lives.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s feature film, I’ve chosen the most unexpected and fascinating behind-the-scenes tidbits. There’s a little bit of everything, from the genesis of the screenplay to the unforgettable poetry recited in the film.
21 Grams is Part of the “Trilogy of Death” by Mexican duo Iñárritu and Arriaga
Like South Korean director Park Chan Wook’s powerful “Revenge Trilogy,” Mexico’s Iñárritu and Arriaga developed a thematic trilogy, in this case, about death and its deeper meaning.
Although Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2004), and Babel (2006) are not narratively connected, the films have marked cinematic, structural, and thematic similarities.
Each explores general themes of life and death, the uncertainty of becoming, the meaning of existence, resilience in the face of adversity, and tragedy and redemption. These films are particularly concerned with exploring the consequences of fateful and often fortuitous incidents.
Told from multiple perspectives (multi-protagonist format) and outside of a linear chronology, the three play with the mind, intuition, and expectations of the audience. If there is a hallmark of this trilogy, it is that the stories move forward and backward in time, involving the viewer in the tale to find out how and why the characters are linked.
For me, the second film in Inarritu’s “Death Trilogy” is the Mexican duo’s most complex narrative work, which is saying a lot, as all three productions are absorbing, tumultuous, and refuse to be forgotten.
The Film’s Title is a Reference to a Popular Belief
“They say we all lose 21 grams at the exact moment of our death. Everyone. 21 grams. The weight of a stack of nickels. The weight of a chocolate bar. The weight of a hummingbird,” announces the poster of the psychological drama.
The film’s title alludes to a 1907 experiment that attempted to scientifically prove that the human soul was material and measurable. Specifically, it was the “21 Grams Experiment” conducted by Duncan MacDougall, a Haverhill physician.
Dr. MacDougall actually tried to measure the physical weight that vanishes when the soul leaves the body and concluded that there was a loss of mass of about three-quarters of an ounce, or 21 grams. No one has since confirmed these findings, but the film written by Arriaga draws freely on this notion.
21 Grams is based on the metaphorical idea of the weight of the soul, the weight of human life, and the weight that is transferred to those who survive us. “How much fits into 21 grams? How much is lost? When do we lose 21 grams? How much goes with them?” These are some of the questions that Iñárritu and Jordán ask us throughout the film.
A Real Accident Inspired the Story of 21 Grams
When talking about the origin of his screenplays, Arriaga has stated that the “stories come from very strange places” and that his are usually based on personal experiences or the experiences of those close to him.
In the case of 21 Grams, the idea came to him suddenly in the middle of a road. It occurred in 2000, while he was driving to his birthday party.
After witnessing a fatal car accident, the Mexican screenwriter began to reflect on how his life and that of his loved ones would change if he were involved in a similar tragedy. Overwhelmed, the author began to imagine all sorts of scenarios: “What if I ran over a man and his two daughters?”, “What if I arrived late to my birthday party because I had killed a family?” This event haunted him and gave birth to the project.
Indeed, the plot of 21 Grams revolves around the aftermath of a violent traffic accident. Arriaga deftly and meticulously weaves a drama about a grieving mother, a mathematician with a terminal heart condition, and a reformed ex-convict who are going through deep personal tragedies and searching for ways to hold on to life.
Sean Penn Recites a Venezuelan Poem
When Arriaga wrote the screenplay for 21 Grams, he decided to pay tribute to the Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo, author of books such as Adiós al Siglo XX (1997) and Partitura de la Cigarra (1999). Captivated by Montejo’s work, the Mexican screenwriter includes part of the poem “La Tierra Giró para Acercarnos” (1986).
Late in the film and in one of the crucial moments, Paul Rivers (Penn) recites the following verses to his love interest, Cristina Peck (Watts):
“The Earth turned to bring us closer,
it turned on itself and in us,
until it finally brought us together in this dream”
Not only do these lines remain tucked deep in my heart, but they are also astutely compatible with the central theme. Again and again, Iñarritu and Arriaga reiterate the idea that chance can change our worlds irrevocably.
20 Years of Legacy
Two decades later, 21 Grams remains an intimate, heartbreaking, and powerful work, capable of challenging the audience until the very last minute. Original, accomplished, and realistic to the point of rawness, 21 Grams is one of those rare exceptions that doesn’t falter, doesn’t corrode, and doesn’t lose complexity.