Film Review – Society of the Snow
Society of the Snow
***Warning: This review contains minor spoilers***
The story of the Uruguayan rugby team – whom in 1972 crash landed in the Andes mountains and was stranded in the harsh climate for months – has been subject of countless news reports, documentaries, and films. I became aware of it from the Frank Marshall directed Alive (1993) starring Ethan Hawke. In Society of the Snow (2023), director J.A. Bayona (who cowrites with Bernat Vilaplana, Jamie Marques, and Nicolás Casariego) puts his own unique spin on the material. He utilizes creative visual techniques to amplify the deadly conditions the survivors faced as well as their changing mental states. The result is a brutal, exhausting, and punishing tale of survival – a testament of those who clung onto the last glimmer of hope when all seemed to be lost.
When people hear about the crash and the extreme measures the team took to survive, the focus almost always comes back to one major element: The fact that they turned to cannibalism as a source of food. As a character notes, without food everyone will die within a few weeks. With no options left, they cut into their dead comrades and ate the meat. Those who did the cutting would not let the others see where the meat came from, to lessen the realization that they were eating their friends and family. The writing develops this decision as both a philosophical and religious quandary. Is it a sin to desecrate the dead so they can live? If they somehow make it back to civilization, would the public despise them? Would God approve of them opting for cannibalism? If not, why would God put them in this position in the first place?
These are pressing questions, but as the days turn to weeks and the weeks turn to months, morality and pride make way for necessity. That is where Bayona’s direction succeeds: By putting us into the same position as the characters, making us feel the enormity of their predicament and the physical torture they went through. It all starts with the harrowing plane crash, which Bayona and his team has us experience in real time. I’ve always been a bit of a nervous flyer, and this film does not help with my anxieties. The way the plane disintegrates in midflight, hitting the top of a mountain and coming apart instantly, is terrifying. This sets the stage for the rest of the runtime. Those that made it out of the crash alive must work together to gather food and supplies, tend to the injured, and create shelter within the ripped-up hull of the airplane.
Of course, this is easier said than done. As time marched forward and no rescue came, the team began to feel the sense of hopelessness creep in. The snow, as gorgeous as it looks across the Andes, was a deathtrap. Pedro Luque’s cinematography captures it as both breathtaking and dangerous. As the effects of starvation and freezing temperatures take their toll, the camera augments itself to reflect the mounting dread. Specific lenses are used to give off a fisheye look, where the edges of the screen are rounded off. Wounds, frostbitten hands, and cracked skin are captured in closeup, putting us right in the thick of things. During a snowstorm in which the hull and everyone inside are buried under a blanket of snow, the camera is placed in the middle of the confusion, panic, and claustrophobia. As characters try to dig their way out, the camera follows along as though it (and subsequently us) were trying to escape as well.
In terms of recounting the details of this ordeal and the methods in which the team tried to find help, Society of the Snow is riveting. As pure procedural, where characters must do this in order to do that and make it to the next day, the execution is about as good as you can get. However, in terms of character development, the narrative comes up short. There are a lot of faces and a lot of names, but only a few (if any) really stand out. Numa Turcatti (Enzo Vogrincic) gets assigned as the de facto lead, guiding us through his perspective and lending voiceover to describe what is happening. But we don’t get a sense of who Numa was as an individual, outside of his feelings about being stuck in the snow or having to resort to cannibalism. The others are relegated as types rather than personalities. Nando (Agustín Pardella) is seen as one of the stronger team members, and thus takes it upon himself to venture out in hopes of finding resources or rescue. Roberto Canessa (Matías Recalt) is a medical student who tries his best to assist the injured. But outside of basic character traits, we learn little else about these people.
I understand that in a movie about characters subjected to brutal situations, taking the time to stop and share their stories may not always take precedence. I sense the writing and direction trying to find the right balance. The production wanted to pay tribute to these people, for those that got off the mountain and for those that didn’t, but also to maintain the narrative tension. The inclusion of intermittent titles, where the names and ages of the dead are put on screen, feels like a roll call of those that didn’t make it. Clearly, this choice was made with earnest intentions – to remember everyone that was onboard that plane. But because the character development doesn’t allow us the opportunity to know anyone, the meaning behind the names gets watered down. We come away remembering the obstacles they faced more so than the people themselves.
On a technical level, there’s no denying that Society of the Snow is an accomplished work detailing a grueling experience. I was awed by its craftsmanship, less so with its emotion. I felt like the movie kept me at arm’s length, never letting me dig into the hearts and souls of the characters we meet. It’s as though it tells us, “This is what happened. This is what was done. This was the outcome…and that’s that.”