The 1972 disaster in which Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crashed in a remote part of the Andes while transporting a rugby team, their friends and family members to a game in Chile, has been the subject of numerous books, documentaries and two dramatic feature films – the 1976 Mexploitation -Quickie, Survive!, which didn’t reach its exclamation point; and Frank Marshall’s 1993 Hollywood version, Livelya mediocre entry in Ethan Hawke’s early film career.
While it is a fictional, gender-swapped reinvention only loosely inspired by Flight 571, Showtime Yellow jackets Paradoxically, with its genre mix of horror, mystery and biting humor, it caused a greater cultural stir than any of these films.
Society of Snow
Uneven but ultimately effective.
Spanish director JA Bayona, who has established his disaster/survival film, has full confidence in the tsunami thriller The impossibleis now getting involved with the Netflix feature, Society of Snow (La Society of the Nieve), which tackles real-life tragedy and the story of human resilience – and yes, cannibalism – with authenticity and chilling realism, with emotion but without sensationalism.
The film is a faithful account based on the 2009 book by Uruguayan journalist Pablo Vierci and made after extensive consultation with both survivors and the families of those who perished in the snow. The Spanish-language retelling is equal parts powerful and spiritual, with a cast of relatively unknown Latin actors enduring the rigors of a grueling shoot in difficult conditions while also undergoing a supervised weight-loss program that lends credibility to the portrayal of a group stranded in icy conditions temperatures and close to starvation.
While limited filming was carried out by a specialized team at the actual scene of the tragedy in the Andes, the majority of filming relied on the more navigable Sierra Nevada mountain range in Spain.
Vierci’s book is told from the perspective of the 16 survivors of Flight 571. But the screenplay by Bayona, Bernat Vilaplana, Jaime Marques-Olearraga and Nicolás Casariego adds a metaphysical dimension by including the voices of both the living and the dead. This includes the bold decision to make one of the latter, 24-year-old law student Numa Turcatti (Enzo Vogrincic), the story’s main narrator and moral conscience.
Numa initially refrained from traveling to Chile and preferred to concentrate on his studies. But the arresting opening in Montevideo – beautifully shot in desaturated colors reminiscent of the period – shows the infectious exhilaration of the Old Christians rugby team, some of whom would be traveling outside Uruguay for the first time.
Bayona is in his element when it comes to big set pieces. The crash itself is a nerve-wracking sequence in which every tremor of the plane can be felt. This begins with the first turbulence, with the mostly young male passengers fooling around and playing tough guys, and then escalates alarmingly as the plane’s instability increases and the boys’ jokes turn into prayers.
Deafening noise gives way to a terrible moment of silence just before impact as the plane touches a mountain in the Andes in far western Argentina. A wing is severed, the fuselage is torn in two, the cockpit is shattered, and the front half of the plane slides down a glacier that became known as the Valley of Tears. The sight of bodies being thrown from the plane and the sound of limbs breaking and metal crunching is as haunting as disaster scenes get.
Twelve of the people on board die immediately, including all three crew members, and several others succumb to their injuries in the following days. The crash site’s blind spot makes it invisible to rescue planes, and the survivors learn from a news report on the transistor radio that the search will be called off after eight days. They remain stuck there for 72 days until the mild spring weather allows two of them, Nando Parrado (Agustín Pardella) and Roberto Canessa (Matías Recalt), to trek to Chile for ten days.
There are tense moments in this interim, including a five-day storm that culminated in an avalanche that smashed through the wreckage while survivors huddled inside for warmth, burying the remains of the plane’s fuselage and literally turning it into an ice box . Digging their way out through the destroyed cockpit requires days of effort, which further exhausts their strength.
But most of the drawn-out middle section consists of waiting, trembling and suffering as the number of victims mounts – each of them identified by name and age that appear as text on the screen – and the meager food supplies are exhausted.
After enduring severe injuries and moments of delirium before suffering another blow when his sister dies, Nando is the first to declare that he refuses to starve when there are bodies wrapped in ice to serve as a source of food could. Others will follow soon. There is heated debate among the survivors as to whether this would be a crime or, worse, a sin, as most of them are religious to some degree. But given how well-known the survival story is, tension is minimal until the inevitable moment when the first pieces of flesh are cut from corpses and consumed.
It’s admirable that Bayona and his co-writers have respectfully declined to exploit the more grisly aspects of cannibalism. There is no blood, gore, or graphic imagery of any kind associated with these scenes. Instead, the drama remains largely psychological, as hunger takes its toll and the objectors admit defeat one by one, with the ailing Numo being one of the last of them. When a dying passenger allows the remaining survivors to eat his body to stay alive, it creates the connection between the living and the dead that binds the group together into a secret society, as the title suggests.
But ethical conflicts and discussions about faith and sacrifice can only sustain a film so far, especially when the large ensemble doesn’t leave much room for individualization of the characters. As compelling as the life-or-death situation is, in a film that drags on for over two and a half hours, it becomes a bit of a burden that could definitely benefit from tighter editing. Even Pedro Luque’s energetic cinematography and Michael Giacchino’s busy, typically powerful orchestral score can only do so much to keep the momentum going.
As the removal of human bones from flesh becomes essential to the dwindling group’s survival, Numa observes in a voiceover: “What was once unthinkable has become routine.” In a way, that’s what happens to the film, even if there are interesting, inventive scenes There are, for example, the production of a sleeping bag for the hikers from insulating material that was torn from the wreck.
Bayona successfully pulls the film out of the dramatic stalemate when Nando and Roberto encounter a rider, and accelerates the action as the remaining survivors are rescued and reunited with their families back home.
More than the weeks-long suspension between life and death and the horrific experience of being forced to eat teammates, friends and family to stay alive, the traumatized return to safety and the psychological discomfort of being portrayed in the media as “Heroes of the Andes “to be celebrated” resonate powerfully. It is not so much the tearful hugs of girlfriends, families and friends that trigger the final outpouring of tearful pathos, but rather the sad sight of the emaciated survivors. With their skin burned by the high sun and covered in months of dirt, their haunted eyes appear to be a direct rebuke to those who call their deliverance a miracle.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (out of competition)
Production companies: Netflix, Misión de Audaces Films, El Arriero Films
Cast: Enzo Vogrincic, Agustín Pardella, Matías Recalt, Esteban Bigliardi, Diego Vegezzi, Fernando Contigiani García, Esteban Kukuriczka, Rafael Federman, Francisco Romero, Valentino Alonso, Tomás Wolf, Agustín Della Corte, Felipe Otaño, Andy Pruss, Blas Polidori, Felipe Ramusio, Simón Hempe, Luciano Chattón, Rocco Posca, Paula Baldini, Emanuel Parga, Juan Caruso, Benjamin Segura, Santiago Vaca Narvaja, Fede Aznarez, Agustín Berruti, Alfonsina Carrocio, Jaime James Loutá
Director: JA Bayona
Screenwriters: JA Bayona, Bernat Vilaplana, Jaime Marques-Olearraga, Nicolás Casariego, based on the book by Pablo Vierci
Producers: Belén Atienza, Sandra Hermida, JA Bayona
Cameraman: Pedro Luque
Production designer: Alain Bainée
Costume designer: Julio Suarez
Music: Michael Giacchino
Editors: Jaume Marti, Andrés Gil
Sound designer: Oriol Tarragó
Visual effects supervisor: Laura Pedro, Félix Bergés
Cast: Maria Laura Berch, Javier Braier, Iair Said
2 hours 24 minutes