- Courtesy Of Netflix
- Stranded in the Andes, a rugby team struggles to survive in this gripping survival drama based on real events.
Weary of gray, endless winter? Want to watch something that will put your suffering in perspective? A nominee for the Best International Feature Film Oscar, Society of the Snow (on Netflix) tells the story of the 1972 plane crash that left a Uruguayan rugby team and their friends and families stranded in the Andes for 72 harrowing days.
J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) directed the Spanish-language survival drama based on the events already chronicled in books, documentaries and the 1993 film Alive. This version adapts a nonfiction book of the same name by journalist Pablo Vierci, forthcoming in March in the U.S.
Twenty-four-year-old law student Numa Turcatti (Enzo Vogrincic), who narrates the film in voice-over, isn't part of the rugby team that charters a plane to travel to Santiago, Chile, for a match. He joins the excursion on a whim to spend time with a friend.
Pilot error sends the aircraft hurtling into a mountain, breaking off the tail and killing 12 of the 45 passengers and crew. The survivors huddle in the fuselage. Their clothing is no match for the cold, and they have more party supplies — cigarettes, wine — than food. They try in vain to attract the attention of planes passing overhead, only to learn later from a radio broadcast that the search has been called off.
As starvation looms, the young men resort to using the flesh of their dead companions for nourishment. Horrified, Numa opts out, but the survival urge is strong. Under the leadership of the team captain (Diego Vegezzi) and medical student Roberto Canessa (Matías Recalt), the survivors employ all their ingenuity to hold out against the elements, gradually realizing that it's up to them to save themselves.
Will you like it?
Back in the '70s, the cannibalism aspect of the Andes plane crash saga dominated the popular imagination. But this easily sensationalized feature of the story pales beside its larger themes: the mercilessness of nature, the indomitable human will to survive, the power of teamwork.
As its title indicates, Society of the Snow foregrounds that last motif. Unlike many disaster films, Bayona's doesn't cut away to show us what the searchers or the survivors' families are doing. The focus throughout is on the community that the survivors create, intensely bonded by their ordeal.
We watch this new "society" take shape through the narration of Numa, who begins as an outsider, barely knowing most of his companions. He opens the film with a question: "What happens when the world abandons you?" The answer is that, rather than going the Lord of the Flies route, the survivors become a unit. They work and tinker and joke and even put their plight into verse, keeping one another alive through action and distraction.
The film's big set pieces — the initial crash, the subsequent avalanches — deliver as much of an adrenaline rush as any action fan could wish. Even more compelling, however, are the quiet scenes of the survivors marking time in the fuselage. Keeping the camera close to the actors, Bayona makes our skin crawl with claustrophobic dread even as we appreciate the naturalistic dialogue.
Given the focus on the collective, this is a true ensemble piece in which no individual performer dominates. We know almost nothing of the characters' backstories, though an early scene in a cathedral establishes the Catholic faith they share. The horrors they undergo will test that faith and lead some of them to redefine it, as we see in a powerful conversation between Numa and Arturo Nogueira (Fernando Contingiani).
Because of the lack of exposition, Society of the Snow plays more like a fever dream than a traditional narrative. Many of the actors have gripping moments, yet without previous knowledge of the story (see sidebar for starting points), it's easy to confuse the players. The lack of clearly marked protagonists, antagonists and supporting characters could lessen some viewers' investment.
The shifting focus sends its own message, however. Stories like this one typically have a survivorship bias: Because they're based on the accounts of those who lived to tell the tale, those people become the heroes. Those who died are generally relegated to supporting status — unless, of course, they bravely sacrificed their lives for those who didn't.
Society of the Snow breaks that pattern to highlight the tragic randomness of the accident, constantly reminding us that the difference between a survivor and a casualty can come down to luck. A nail-biting watch for fans of outdoor survival tales, the film leaves us with a wrenching respect for those who didn't make it as well as those who did.
If you like this, try...
"Prisoners of the Snow: A Special Edition of 20/20" (2023; abc.com, Apple TV, Hulu): This documentary features new interviews with the crash survivors. Check your library for older docs such as I Am Alive: Surviving the Andes Plane Crash (2010; HISTORY Vault) and the award-winning Stranded (2007; not streaming).
The Impossible (2012; fuboTV, Philo, PLEX, Netflix, Sling TV, rentable): Bayona's drama about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami received criticism for focusing on tourists instead of the local Thai population. Within those limitations, it's a genuinely terrifying disaster film featuring a Golden Globe-winning performance by Naomi Watts.
"Yellowjackets" (19 episodes, 2021 to present; Paramount+, the Roku Channel, Showtime, rentable): The Andes disaster was an obvious inspiration for this creepy dual-timeline series about a girls' soccer team that crashes in the wilderness and struggles to reintegrate into society after more than a year of isolation.