Spanish writer-director JA Bayona's retelling of the iconic 1972 Andes air crash is his career best work, which is a big call given how masterful his 2016 film a A MONSTER CALLS is. There is evident care taken to listen to the testimony of the survivors and honour both their experience and that of the victims. What lifts this film beyond earlier movies covering the same topic is its technological prowess in showing the crash, and then by contrast, the quiet moments of philosophical and moral contemplation as the survivors decide how to live.
The film opens with a brief but powerful essay on life before the crash. We see these young college students full of life and exuberance as they plan for a flight to Chile for a rugby match. Within five minutes we are on board and the fun continues until the first dramatic moment of air turbulence shifts the mood. Bayona moves as fast as events would have in real time, showing the plane hit a storm, wildly gyrate before having its wings sheered off, the fuselage ripped, before crashing into a mountain. We feel the impact viscerally - it's the most frightening depiction of a crash yet seen on film - and matched in impact by an avalanche shown later in the film. We feel the peril and the suffocation and claustrophobia of endless hostile snow.
And then we move into the main bulk of the film which has a far quieter, more contemplative tone. The team captain with his quiet gentle manner becomes the leader of the 29 survivors, raising their morale, rationing food and organising their tasks. When their hope of rescue is quashed by a news report heard on the radio. And so they realise that they are on their own, with no food, but a misperception that Chile is just on the other side of the mountain. And so they take the fateful, profound decision to use the "protein" of their dead comrades, build strength, survive and achieve their own rescue. Two of them hike an incredible ten days, without any mountaineering equipment or experience or even a compass or a map, and achieve rescue.
The most moving scene is how JA Bayona chooses to end the film - showing the Society Of The Snow reassembled, now seemingly safe and clean in a hospital ward, but still emaciated. They look confused and concerned, maybe now facing up to the decisions they took and the improbability of their rescue and the injustice of who did and did not survive. Bayona chooses to give us the essential truth beyond the sensational headlines - that these boys survived because they were truly a society - they were friends, they trusted each other, they cared for each other, they helped each other do the unthinkable, and willed each other to survive. And that this community care is going to have to continue as the men process what they have been through.
SOCIETY OF THE SNOW is rated R and has a running time of 144 minutes. It played Venice 2023 and was released today on Netflix.