The Sit-Down

VISITING TOWN recently to discuss 21 Grams, Mexican-born director Alejandro González Iñárritu was anything but morbid, despite the subject of his film. Recalling the death of his own infant son, the former radio DJ noted how different the American way of death is. “To be more natural about that, to liberate [ourselves] from the anxiety of it biologically, I feel more alive, because I value what I have. People confront it more naturally, I think, in my country. There’s a party. You celebrate.”

While noting exceptions like Mystic River, he sees that organic connection as being generally absent from American film and culture: “We are not used to dealing with the matter of death, even though it is so close to us. We don’t want to talk about it. We are uncomfortable about it. Everyone wants to deny.” He cites the plastic-surgery culture of L.A.his current homeas a denial of the fundamental organic procession toward decay: “They want to reject death, [yet if] we don’t know how to live with death, I think our life is more miserable . . . that’s what terror is about.”

Indeed, in their varying responses to death, the three main characters of Grams suffer a second kind of misery and estrangement: Paul (Sean Penn) from his wife; Jack (Benicio Del Toro) from God; and grief-stricken Christina (Naomi Watts) from herself. Of the latter, Iñárritu says, “You deny. You close yourself. Ultimately, when you don’t have the ability to get in touch with your emotions, that’s what addiction and alcoholism is about.”

Everyone goes through the wringer in Grams, which could be called a kind of anti-therapy movie. Nobody pops Prozac or goes to see a shrink. Booze, cigarettes, and sex are the palliatives of choice. Of Del Toro’s tortured, guilt-afflicted Jack, Iñárritu says, “I was born in the Catholic religion. We’re always taught that we should forgive everybody. But nobody really teaches you how to forgive yourself, which is the most difficult thing. What he really needs is that.”

For all these deeply troubled characters, there is no easy final state of forgiveness (or forgiving) to attain. “It’s about something beyond that . . . ,” Iñárritu concludes. “There are some things that we can never change and are beyond our understanding. You stop believing, and you start surviving. And surviving is very hard for them. What I wanted to explore in this film was hope. It’s about how we confront loss in our lives with hope, how we can find hope in those circumstances.”

In person, at least, the garrulous, charming Iñárritu doesn’t make that seem at all depressing.