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Society of the Snow
La sociedad de la nieve

Directed by J.A. Bayona
Produced by J.A. Bayona, Belén Atienza, and Sandra Hermida
Screenplay by J. A. Bayona, Bernat Vilaplana, Jaime Marques, and Nicolás Casariego Based on the book by Pablo Vierci
With: Enzo Vogrincic, Agustín Pardella, Matías Recalt, Esteban Bigliardi, Diego Vegezzi, Fernando Contingiani, Esteban Kukuriczka, Francisco Romero, Rafael Federman, Valentino Alonso, Tomas Wolf, Agustín Della Corte, Felipe Gonzalez Otaño, Andy Pruss, Blas Polidori, Felipe Ramusio, Simon Hempe, Luciano Chatton, Rocco Posca, Paula Baldini, Emanuel Parga, Juan Caruso, Benjamín Segura, Santiago Vaca Narvaja, Federico Aznárez, Agustín Berruti, Alfonsina Carrocio, Jaime James Louta, Juandi Eirea Young, Jerónimo Bosia, Giselle Douaret, Agustín Lain, Julian Bedino, Federico Formento, Lautaro Martín Bakir, Tea Alberti, Francisco Bereny, Toto Rovito, Lucas Mascarena, Maximiliano de la Cruz, Juan José Marco, Mariano Rochman, and Esteban Pico
Cinematography: Pedro Luque
Editing: Jaume Martí and Andrés Gil
Music: Michael Giacchino
Runtime: 144 min
Release Date: 15 December 2023
Aspect Ratio: 2.55 : 1
Color: Color

Spanish writer/director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage, A Monster Calls, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) mounts a reverential production of the oft-told true story of "The Miracle of the Andes." The inspiring survival story of the 1972 flight disaster in which a plane chartered by a Uruguayan rugby team crashed into a glacier in the heart of the Andes mountains, and sixteen of the forty-five passengers managed to stay alive for seventy-two days in the snow-covered fuselage, has been the subject or basis for at least seven books and ten documentaries, feature films, and TV series—as well as countless articles and podcasts. Probably the most well-known screen version is the Frank Marshall/Kathleen Kennedy production Alive! (1993), based on British writer Piers Paul Read's acclaimed 1974 book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors.

Bayona's film is based on Uruguayan journalist and author Pablo Vierci's 2008 book, La sociedad de la nieve. A former classmate of many of the survivors, Vierci drew on interviews he conducted with each of them thirty-six years after the crash to create his intimate and personal account. Bayona discovered the book while researching his masterful disaster/survival picture The Impossible (2012), about the Indian Ocean tsunami that hit Thailand in 2004. In that film, Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez take viewers through the experience of the natural disaster and its aftermath from the perspective of a single, slightly fictionalized family. Society of the Snow attempts the more difficult task of making all the individual survivors into fully developed movie characters while remaining utterly faithful to each real person's lived experience. The film contains no trace of exploitation of its subjects. However, the level of delicacy in how everything is depicted feels somewhat at odds with the unrelenting conditions of the situation.

One moving touch is the choice to list, via on-screen text, the names and ages of each person who died when their character passes away in the film. Many of the passengers did not survive the crash itself, and during the seventy-two days that followed, an additional thirteen people succumbed to injuries, exposure, starvation, and psychological despair. Those who didn't die resorted to cannibalism to survive. When they realized that no rescue effort would find them, the most physically hearty of the group set out on a journey through the frozen mountains in the hope of walking to Chilie.

Society of the Snow, with its cast of mostly unknown Uruguayan and Argentine actors all speaking Spanish, has a verisimilitude unmatched by any other fictional account of this story I've seen. It almost plays like a corrective to Alive!—which suffers from '90s-era special effects and questionable choices of casting, costumes, and make-up (the very American Ethan Hawke's perfectly groomed hipster Van Dyke facial hair and stubble-free cheeks challenge the viewer to take the passage of days seriously). On the other hand, Bayona's picture is so respectful that it strips the story of some of its inherent power. This director is well-skilled at conveying emotions through visuals, yet the film primarily consists of tight, dark close-ups of the men huddled in the hollowed-out airplane or bright, wide drone shots looking down on the tiny figures against the immense white landscape. Bayona, cinematographer Pedro Luque (Don’t Breathe), and editors Jaume Martí and Andrés Gil spend so much time on the faces of each character that we occasionally lose the palpable feeling of being stuck on the face of a mountain.

When it comes time to cut into the human bodies, Bayona keeps this action off-screen. That decision also seems made in deference to the dead, but it feels like a copout. It's a disservice to a narrative feature telling this story to omit such a critical action, replacing the depiction of the act with expository voiceover. Bayona and his co-writers don't use Vierci's device of telling each chapter of the story from a different person's perspective. Instead, they employ the unfortunate narration of a single character. This reportage creates a distancing effect that, I'm sure, is the opposite of what was intended. I have little doubt that the voiceover was devised as a way to avoid having to visualize certain aspects of the story, though there are plenty of more cinematic ways to achieve this goal. John Patrick Shanley's screenplay for Alive! features bookends with one character (played by John Malkovich) looking back on the crash, but otherwise, it allows the events to play out without any internalized commentary.

However, where Shanley's stylized Engish dialogue explores a generalized religiosity, Bayona's film wrestles with the religious and spiritual implications of the events with more complexity. Similarly, the way Society of the Snow explores the unique social structure that evolved among this group of teammates is more compelling than in Alive! or many documentaries about the survivors. It might seem that this spectacular story of faith, bravery, teamwork, and determination would be a natural for a cinematic translation. But no movie could ever come close to capturing what it must have been really like. All screen versions end up feeling like they're missing something, but Society of the Snow does the best job so far at making a survival thriller from this real-life drama.

Twitter Capsule:

The incredible, oft-told true story of the 1972 Andes flight disaster is far more difficult to translate into cinematic terms than it might seem. J. A. Bayona's feature adaptation of Pablo Vierci’s book is powerful but a little too respectful.