Society of the Snow, a Spanish-language disaster film, is a discomforting and intense 144-minute drama that centres man’s insignificance against the might of the mountains and resilience in a crisis. Director J.A. Bayona tackled similar themes with The Impossible (2012) which looked at a family’s struggles in the wake of the 2004 tsunami. Society of the Snow (Netflix) captures the horror of the October 13, 1972 event, when a Uruguayan plane bound for Santiago, Chile, crashed in the Andes. Aboard were 45 people, including a rugby team known as the Old Christians.
The majority of the passengers were in their 20s. It was another 10 weeks before rescue operations got underway. By then 16 were left alive. The story has often been covered by filmmakers before (including the 1993 film Alive), but Spanish filmmaker Bayona’s approach leaves you moved, shattered and astounded.
Based on Pablo Vierci’s book of the same name (La Sociedad de la Nieve), a nonfiction account of the events, the film adaptation is a survival drama narrated by Numa (played by Enzo Vogrincic), a passenger on board the ill-fated flight who took a stand against eating human flesh in order to survive. Through his perspective Bayona delves into the minds of the survivors as they are confronted with brutal choices, as they question their faith, god, humanity and the meaning of life.
Bayona quickly and cleverly introduces all the characters and their vulnerabilities, from before they sign up for the trip to the crash and after. He realistically recreates the violent and gut-wrenching crash, conveys claustrophobia, hopelessness and loneliness, sucking the air out of the frame so that the viewer too feels the chill and breathlessness of a group buried under snow. Bayona pushes the viewer to feel a sliver of the mental fortitude, physical strength and horror required to survive on the snow-covered mountains surrounded by death, without food and adequate clothing. Yet survivors Nando (Augustin Pardella) and Roberto (Matias Recalt) undertake a treacherous journey to seek help.
The survivors confront deep dilemmas about the collapse of the human condition, including submitting to the idea of cannibalism. For those scenes, Pedro Luque’s camera goes close into faces, taking the audience into the minds of the survivors. When the camera exits the wreckage of the plane, it pans out to expose the expansive and intimidating surroundings. The sets, locations, music, sound design, lensing, make-up, coupled with the commitment of a largely inexperienced cast that went through major physical transformation to drop weight and grow hair, contribute to the haunting impact of this epic tale. The film was partly shot in the actual location where Flight 571 came down.
The philosophical essence of the film is captured in the shot of one survivor walking down a mountain slope. The vast whiteness conveying emptiness and a feeling of abandonment. During one lighter moment, a poetry slam, an ailing passenger describes his fellow survivors as his gods. Not all heroes wear capes, he says. The last scenes of rescue and return capture the psychological aftermath—men celebrated as heroes who carry survivors’ guilt, who will probably be forever changed.
A little long, Society of the Snow is nonetheless visceral and inspiring, an affecting tale that is also cinematically unique.