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Translates Well

Mexican director casts a complex shadow

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The storylines of three seemingly disparate characters converge in the aftermath of a horrific car accident in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's acclaimed second film, 21 Grams (which opened locally this past weekend). If the basic premise sounds vaguely familiar, then perhaps you're thinking of the Mexican director's 2001 Oscar-nominated debut Amores Perros, in which a trio of subplots unfold and overlap around a fateful car crash. Both movies employ a certain cinema-verite approach to their material, replete with grainy imagery and jerky hand-held camerawork to indicate gritty realism. And both of them jump back and forth in time in a decidedly nonlinear narrative fashion.

One might think Inarritu, 40, would have ventured off in entirely different directions with his first studio-financed, English-language film by resisting too many stylistic and structural similarities. But, in fact, the director opted to embrace them. "It's like, every tree projects a particular shadow," he explains. "I cast a shadow of my own, and I think there's no way for me to escape that, so this is the way I choose to express myself. This is my voice, or whatever you want to call it."

Thus, Inarritu defends his penchant for nonlinear storytelling. To hear him explain it during a recent interview, the technique challenges audiences to suspend preconceptions they have about where the story is going. But doesn't it just as effectively telegraph as much as it conceals? The how and the why aren't immediately clear, but we realize very early on in the film that Sean Penn's heart-transplant recipient, Naomi Watts' recovering drug addict and Benicio Del Toro's Bible-thumping ex-con will eventually end up together in the same seedy motel room. The question quickly engages the director, who removes his ski cap to scratch his head and seriously ponder the suggestion.

"I never think of this before," he replies, after squinting his eyes and stroking his chin for a few seconds. "To me, I think the way we tell this story is because we want people to feel something first, rather than necessarily understanding everything right away, yes? It's like, my father told me the same bedtime stories all my life when I was a kid, but in a different way each time, from this point-of-view and then from that one. This kept me interested in hearing the stories again, picking up a little something different every time beyond that one thing of knowing how the stories were going to end."

The only foregone conclusion about the end of 21 Grams is that it isn't going to be very pretty. But then again, if Inarritu had wanted to spin some easily digestible fairy tale, he probably would've given more consideration to the many offers he received to helm various slick Hollywood projects following the unexpected international success of Amores Perros. Of greater importance to Inarritu was collaborating again with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto.

"We're a team," states Inarritu. "We work well and have history together. We already speak in the same language. So all I knew was I wanted to achieve something else of the same atmosphere and reality we did the first time."

Although 21 Grams was originally written in Spanish and conceived for production in Mexico, Inarritu welcomed the chance to make the film for the American indie company Focus Features. ("Are you kidding?" he quips. "How else do I work with incredible actors like Sean Penn or Naomi Watts?") Rather than worry about losing the script's nuances in translation, Inarritu saw it as the perfect opportunity to reinforce the universality of his story. Amores Perros was filmed in Mexico City, 21 Grams in Memphis, but the director says both dramas could take place anywhere.

"Maybe there's going to be little differences in the flavor, but that's all," he explains. "It's like, when you drink a bottle of Coca-Cola, it doesn't taste the same when you drink an aluminum can of it. Even if it's exactly the same substance, the form and shape of the surroundings have an effect on it. I believe there's a reason you drink tequila from a little shot-glass, and why you drink coffee or tea in a mug. Don't you think coffee tastes different in a paper cup?"

Different, perhaps, though not inherently better or worse. Inarritu says he had the same level of creative control and independence making his second film as he had making his first in his native Mexico. While he doesn't want to be primarily labeled a "Mexican director," neither does he seem very keen on sacrificing his vision simply for the sake of working on a larger Hollywood budget. As a result, he says his next project could go either way, north of the border or south of it.

When asked if he has another script in mind, Inarritu flashes a boyish grin, gives a wink, and shakes his finger exaggeratedly. "You have problems with my triptych, yes? Maybe I do another one and get it right, the final chapter in a trilogy of triptychs. How you like that idea?"

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