THE STORY – In 1972, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which had been chartered to fly a rugby team to Chile, crashed in the heart of the Andes. Only 29 of its 45 passengers survived the accident. Trapped in one of the most hostile and inaccessible environments on the planet, they have to resort to extreme measures to stay alive.
THE 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
THE TEAM – J. A. Bayona (Director/Writer), Bernat Vilaplana, Jaime Marques & Nicolás Casariego (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 144 Minutes
Audiences have always turned to films that are giant spectacles, showcasing some of the world’s worst tragedies, whether caused by nature or by man. Sometimes, these films adapt real-life events, often approached through an angle of sensationalizing the story for commercial appeal. The depiction of some of these disasters can be void of a more empathetic path, which can be disrespectful toward the victims, survivors, and their families. Not to say these disaster films shouldn’t be entertaining, but it’s important to remember the people who endured these horrific situations. There is a perfect balance in approaching these stories with care but also with a cinematic eye to thrill, entertain, and inspire. With “Society of the Snow,” director J.A. Bayona delivers an immersive experience that strikes such a balance between severe anguish and respectful resilience in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s a masterful testament to the human condition; taking everything he demonstrated in 2011’s “The Impossible” and perfecting it, Bayona has crafted his most terrifying and beautiful film.
“Society of the Snow” follows the harrowing story of the infamous disaster of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 and the torments the survivors endured as they were trapped in the snowy mountains of the Andes in Argentina with no sign of rescue. The film begins by introducing us to the members of the Old Christian Club rugby union team and establishing the brotherly bond between them all. An opportunity comes for the team to play in Chile, where the flight will also be comprised of friends and family. It’s all very jovial as the passengers are having a grand time, but the mood slowly begins to shift. We see in real-time as the flight starts to go awry, tragedy strikes and the plane violently crashes. As the survivors make it out of the crash, they are faced with the violent nature of the piercing cold environment, lack of supplies, and no way to contact the outside world.
“Society of the Snow” succeeds in telling this true story because of Bayona’s commitment to creating a visceral observation of the survivors’ struggles to live through this traumatic experience. The crash in itself might be the most intense plane crash ever captured on film. This can probably be attributed to the film’s heavy reliance on using audio to immerse the audience and its unwillingness to cut away from what takes place after the crash. The aggressive rattling of the plane, bones violently cracking, and the torrent of freezing winds all help sell how dire the situation is. The sound editing and mixing are paired excellently with Michael Giacchino’s phenomenal score. It’s an incredibly tender assembly of music that, at times, can feel epic and serene before transitioning into something out of a horror film. It helps sell the drastic nature of some of the film’s darker elements, but it can also bring you to tears when it wants to.
The entire ensemble of mostly unknown actors, all playing their characters in Spanish, are across the board, wonderful and believable. They each engross you and break your heart as you see these innocent boys so full of life, throughout the film, have their will to live slowly drained from them. Bayona’s dedication to having native actors from the region play each of the characters was a perfect decision and is another aspect where his authentic approach to this well-known story feels appropriate and helps his version feel so definitive compared to the many others that are out there, most notably 1993’s “Alive.”
Enzo Vogrincic as Numa Turcatti is a standout amongst the cast as he not only becomes the film’s moral compass but is also the narrator of the story. His character’s arc is a heartbreaking one as he goes from a strong, capable leader the group looks up to and subsequently loses most of these qualities as the elements, dire circumstances, and other factors all beat down on him the longer he and the other survivors remain in these tense and unlivable conditions.
The real star of “Society of the Snow,” however, is the cinematography by Pedro Luque, which is breathtaking for every frame. The snowy mountains of the Andes are captured with such deep reverence as its gorgeous scenery is almost poisoned by the void it conveys to the survivors. It’s a snowy chasm, and in that emptiness is where the fear sets in. It’s easy to get lost by staring at all the stunning scenic shots captured along the mountainside or even when Bayona elects to get the camera up close in the actors’ faces to convey maximum discomfort and claustrophobia. The film is shot predominantly handheld, which lends to a sense of uncertainty that Bayona continues to build throughout the film. One sequence, in particular, is when the survivors react to information heard from back home on a radio regarding their potential rescue, and it’s devastating to witness. The way Luque runs with the camera and captures everyone’s emotional response to the news is one of the more memorable sequences of this year. “Society of the Snow” is also really well-edited. Editor Jaume Marti’s work is exceptional, delivering a crisp and precise nature to the film, having to edit hundreds of hours of footage and distill it down to less than two and a half hours. It can feel strenuous the longer it goes on, but there’s a rhythm to the film’s structure and how it earns the audience’s hearts by the end after putting us through such a grueling ordeal.
The screenplay by Bayona, Nicholás Casariego, Bernat Vilaplana, and Jaime Marques does not shy away from the more gory aspects of what these people had to do to survive and keep their hope alive. In less capable hands, “Society of the Snow” could’ve been far less considerate, but instead, the more graphic material is presented compassionately, which is not only respectful towards the survivors but also will hopefully not scare off any audience members who have only heard bits and pieces of what took place during those weeks in the mountains.
Despite all the frightening moments, there are also moving moments of levity that rub off onto the viewers. There’s a touching scene as the survivors all shack up together in the freezing remains of the plane to stay as warm as they can. Instead of the scene being incredibly dour, the survivors are singing rhymes and laughing with one another. There’s another scene where they mimic bird noises out of what one could consider boredom or a strong, shared moment of community. It’s these little details Bayona and crew took from actual interactions with the real survivors that make “Society of the Snow” feel all the more relatable, placing us directly alongside these young boys as they go through the unimaginable.
“Society of the Snow” is a captivating true-life disaster film that exceeds on every technical level. However, where it truly excels is in how it captures the resilience of the human spirit. Despite the hardships of life, Bayona’s telling of the famous Uruguayan 1972 Andes flight disaster proves we can put our faith in one another to survive and be a beacon of hope, even in death. Bayona’s work is stunning on both a micro and macro level, capturing the dangers of the natural world and the humanity of a group of people who had every reason to give up but kept pushing for as long as they could against the cold, against hunger, against insanity. It’s an emotionally remarkable achievement and Bayona’s best film to date.