Society of the Snow

On October 12, 1972, when a Uruguayan flight chartered by a rugby team for a trip to Santiago crashed in an inaccessible and extremely inhospitable part of the Andes, 29 of the 45 on board miraculously survived the crash.  What they would have to continue to survive after rescue missions were called off due to extreme weather was almost unimaginable, but a strong bond of love and friendship among them created a “Society of the Snow.”

Laura's Review: A-

Cowriter (with "Intruders'" Nicolás Casariego & Jaime Marques-Olearraga and Bernat Vilaplana)/director J.A. Bayona ("The Impossible," "A Monster Calls") adapts Pablo Vierci's novel (the author attended college with survivors) to include the voices of those who did not survive, including one very surprising one I will not spoil here.  Bayona went so far as to shoot at the site of the crash at the same time of year, experiencing nausea, an extreme headache and freezing temperatures both for authenticity and in order to understand his subjects better.  Call it cinematic empathy of the most respectful kind.

And that is how Bayona tells his story.  While it is a thrilling survival adventure on the one hand, it in no way exploits its victims, instead illuminating the intense spiritual bond that quickly grew among them, one in which friends would offer up their deaths to the living and one in which the eating of human flesh, while horrific, was a means to carrying on, not only for themselves but for families back home.

After establishing the group of young men, many about to go their separate ways, excited by a $45 fare and possible last trip together, mostly to visit girls they’d met previously at rugby matches, we get the first group photo out on the tarmac.  There are a few family members, including women, and other passengers, but we mostly experience things through the eyes of Numa Turcatti (Enzo Vogrincic), thought to be on his way to becoming one of Montevideo’s top lawyers.

Once the plane takes off, card games and camaraderie are on full display, but some severe turbulence makes Numa nervous.  Another young man explains how warm Argentinean air colliding with the cold mountain air creates a suction effect and how the pilot will navigate his way around the highest peaks but he’s barely finished speaking when the plane fails to scale one, its tail breaking off with several passengers, its nose plummeting down a snowy slope, metal seats accordioning together with the impact.  It is perhaps the most horrific plane crash ever recreated on screen.  Bayona begins a countdown.

We watch as survivors climb out of the wreckage and, finding the pilot still alive (barely), attempt to get information but receive a whispered ‘God be with you.’  Roberto (Matías Recalt), a young medical student, begins to tend to the wounded as others drag the dead away and look for anything useful, food, water, medical supplies and protection from the cold chief among them (the group does appear to have a copious supply of cigarettes which never appear to run out).  That night, the already frigid air temperature will drop thirty degrees and the young men will learn the advantage of cuddling for warmth, but many more are lost that first night on the mountain.

We become familiar with individual characters like the injured Nando (Agustín Pardella) and his more grievously hurt sister.  A few attempt to find the plane’s tail, but halfway up the slope realize they cannot see the tail anymore, a shocking realization regarding their rescue.  Day six brings farewell letters and discussion of the unthinkable.  A commercial radio is found just in time to learn that not only has the search has been called off, but that statistically, there have never been survivors of the thirty-four planes that crashed in the Andes.  Just when it seems things couldn’t get worse, they do and it will be yet another act of loving self sacrifice that sees sixteen young men reunited with civilization two days before Christmas.

Cinematographer Pedro Luque Briozzo Scu makes stunning use of the blinding white landscape, extreme angles and shadow creating arresting visual interest.  Production designer Alain Bainée integrates wreckage within the landscape, the plane’s interior demonstrating deteriorating conditions.  The film’s sound design ranges from screaming metal to eerie silence to threatening cracks in ridges of snow.  Michael Giacchino’s score is moving and beautiful, creating a sense of isolation in nature while also accentuating its dangers with swirling violin howls. 

“Society of the Snow” is a riveting work of cinema that will leave you in awe in what humankind is capable of.  It is Spain’s submission for the 2024 International Oscar.

Netflix releases "Society of the Snow" in select theaters on 12/22/23.  It begins streaming on 1/4/24.