Signs of Life
21 Grams and In America.


Two limited-release, art-house films–21 Grams and In America–address themes of despair and hope, family and fidelity, and providence in contemporary America. Although not observed by mainstream film critics, both films depict abortion–the choice for or against which figures decisively in the determination of characters’ fates–as the ultimate act of despair and infidelity. In fact, In America, by far the better of the two films, extends the liberal doctrine of inclusion and compassion to what its central character identifies, not as a fetus or potential human life, but as an “unborn child.”

With its Pulp Fiction-like refusal of linear narrative, its edgy, often frenetic, hand-held camera work, and its musings on death, the soul, and providence, 21 Grams is one of the most artistically ambitious films of the year. It is also one of the year’s most pretentious flops. Instead of building upon his performance in Mystic River, Sean Penn regresses; he is simply incapable of being the philosophical vehicle the film requires him to be. The best performances in 21 Grams belong to the husband and wife characters, Jack (Benicio del Toro) and Maryanne Jordan (Melissa Leo of Homicide TV fame). Jack, an ex-con striving to give his life to Jesus, insists upon personal access to the ways of divine providence, repeatedly insisting that every hair is numbered. Maryanne is less concerned with salvation than with simply keeping her family together. Benicio’s Jack illustrates with devastating consequences how close a certain kind of belief is to unbelief, how a certain (mis)conception of divine providence makes it nearly impossible to distinguish God from the devil. As Maryanne says to him, “a couple years ago you didn’t believe in anything, now everything is God.”

The problem with 21 Grams–from the director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose previous film was the promising Spanish-language Amores Perros–is its assumption that a predictable and contrived providential ending makes up for an entire film wallowing in grief and degradation. Much is made of fidelity–to God, spouse, and children. In this context, a botched abortion is less an occasion for the promotion of abortion, safe and legal, than a reflection on abortion as symptom and cause of infidelity. It is not surprising that this lesson should be lost in the midst of the emotional paroxysms in which the film specializes. This is third-rate Dostoevsky, with characters that self-indulgently assume the significance of events is directly proportionate to the degree of misery.

By contrast, In America nicely balances misery and hope, suffering and humor. It captures the surprises, frustrated hopes, and eventual victory involved in one Irish family’s move to America, in this case to Manhattan, which filmmaker Jim Sheridan calls an “island of dreams.” It also features two remarkably captivating performances by Sarah and Emma Bolger, who play Christy and Ariel, daughters of Johnny and Sarah Sullivan.

The entire family has left Ireland after the accidental death of the only son. An initial scene sets the film’s dominant tone of wonder at American city life; the family discovers the bright lights of the big city to the upbeat music of the Loving Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic?” Even taking up residence in Hell’s Kitchen, their apartment building of junkies, and the “man who screams,” as Ariel explains, fail to destroy the family’s optimism. In a device reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, the entire story is told from the perspective of Ariel, who not only offers frequent voiceovers but also records events on her handheld video camera. The film is in many ways a classical immigrant tale, with scenes featuring the kids learning the Star-Spangled Banner and adopting a variety of American customs. In a funny attempt to explain Halloween to her parents, Ariel states, “You don’t ask for things in America–you demand.” “It’s trick or treat,” she continues, “it’s a threat.”

One of the occupants of Hell’s Kitchen is Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), “the man who screams,” an African American dying of AIDS whose self-destructive rage and obsession with blood are tempered by his friendship with the Sullivan girls. In America thus bespeaks inclusion of, and compassion for, those at the margins of society. But Mateo’s own message of love is broader than that commonly on display in contemporary liberal politics of compassion. When Sarah conceives and is diagnosed with an at-risk pregnancy, the continuation of which will risk her own life, Johnny advocates abortion and castigates Mateo for predicting that the new child will bring good fortune. Johnny is trapped in the past, deprived of joy in the present or hope in the future by the loss of his son. In a crucial exchange, Mateo tells Johnny bluntly, “You don’t believe.” “In what?” Johnny counters, “God? I asked him for a favor–to take me. He took both of us.” Mateo counsels love for the “unborn child.” Although the film is a bit cloying at times and sidesteps–through quasi-miraculous interventions–some of the family’s burdens, it faces squarely the risks involved in bringing such an a pregnancy to term. Indeed, Christy, who remembers her brother through the fantasy of assuming that he has bestowed three wishes on the family, resists recourse to her last wish during her mother’s labor, because one has to be “careful what one wishes for.” If the baby comes too soon, it could die; if it comes too late, her mother could die.

The film’s optimistic message of inclusion is fostered in part by its fantasy quality, its refusal to depict the denizens of the drug-infested apartment complex as any real threat to anyone; this is a New York where kids wander the streets without fear of predatory adults. But the film contains a profound lesson about the importance of fantasy or imagination in the raising of children. As Sarah informs her husband (an unsuccessful actor), parents can overcome temptations to cynicism, despair, and narcissism by acting for the sake of the children. What might appear to be deception is a way of letting a virtuous imagination draw parents and children to virtuous lives.

Although it is not a perfectly realized film, In America strives for something that is all too rare in current Hollywood productions–the portrayal of contemporary American life in decidedly hopeful terms.