It’s old news that Hollywood likes to butcher true stories to make genres like true crime more marketable, substituting reality with sensationalized scenes made to garner shock over anything else. Director J.A. Bayona refuses to let the story of 45 Uruguayans get this treatment; his new film “Society of the Snow” (or “La sociedad de la nieve”) treats the Uruguayan 1972 Andes flight disaster with loving care and humanizes the figures involved.
The film follows the true story of a devastating plane crash that killed many of its 45 passengers and left the survivors of the initial crash stranded in the Andes mountains for over 70 days. The survivors had improper clothing, little food, only a broken chunk of the plane for shelter and a handful of injured to care for — and still they made it through. “Society of the Snow” uses an admirable cast, unique filming processes and an impeccable score to create a heart-wrenching film that prioritizes realism over spectacle.
Critics have compared “Society of the Snow” to the film “Alive” (1993), which tells a similar story of an Uruguayan Rugby team who must survive in the Andes. This previous rendition uses a whitewashed cast and disrespectful character tropes in attempts to make a real story into a glamorized and gory flick fit for a “Mission Impossible” fanatic. Bayona’s film is the complete opposite, weaving a story that is an ode to both survivors and the deceased. The authenticity of the film comes from the director and writers’ years of research, conducting personal interviews with the survivors, obtaining permission from the families of the deceased and hiring a Spanish-speaking cast.
The cast – consisting of Argentinian and Uruguayan actors — shatters viewers’ souls through the characters’ despair and hopelessness, but even more amazingly, they make it easy to smile with them and feel a surge of life in a setting that is completely devoid of life. The paradox of human kindness amongst the barren landscape can be seen through its characters. Numa (Enzo Vogrincic) remains a gentle soul throughout the film despite his suffering. Roberto (Matías Recalt) uses his analytical mind and knowledge as a medical student to keep his friends alive. Cousins Fito (Esteban Kukuriczka) and Daniel (Francisco Romero) take on the grueling task of preparing the human flesh for consumption so their friends can sustain themselves with less guilt. Nando (Agustín Pardella) forces himself to train and regain physical strength to make the 10-day walk that eventually saves his friends. Every actor is so impactful; you never forget their characters’ motivations and personalities despite the cast being so large.
The likability of these characters and the raw, emotional power the actors possess balances the horrors of the event and allows the viewers to feel like a part of the group. And by using unknown actors, the separation between the actors and the real figures becomes blurred, leading to total immersion. The film also honors the survivors by giving some of them cameos.
It can be hard to cement the importance of all the deceased with a two and a half hour run time, but the script allows the characters and the audience to mourn every death through brief flashbacks and visual descriptions of the deceased’s name and age. Numa narrates throughout the film, his soothing and gentle voice contrasting with the coldness of their environment. In some films, narration is used for lazy storytelling, moving the plot along without meaningful dialogue or character interactions. This is not the case in “Society of the Snow” because the narration shows that the dead and the living are equally important and present. Even after his death, Numa continues to narrate and be present in his friends’ lives through his bodily sacrifice and moral code.
The film is incredibly immersive — rare in the entertainment industry — because of Bayona’s decision to film most of the events chronologically and in the freezing environmental conditions of the Sierra Nevada and the real crash site in the Andes. By filming scenes from the first day in the mountains to the day Nando and Roberto return to civilization, and by having the actors lose weight gradually throughout filming, the cast is able to feel what their real-life counterparts experienced. These filming decisions along with the subtle and gradual SFX makeup resulted in a realistic decline in health for the characters, with cracked lips, snow-burnt skin and worsening injuries.
The score, composed by Michael Giacchino, also helps with this immersion, inviting viewers to feel the wide range of emotions the characters experience. From the moment the plane crashes, the music is filled with anxiety-ridden instrumentals. Even when the soundtrack is calm, hints of eerie sounds sneak in, showing that even when calm persists on the mountain, death is always in the forefront of the boys’ minds. The compositions “Home” and “Found” are enough to send the viewer into a sobbing, bumbling mess, feeling the mixed bag of returning to your family while leaving the remains of your fallen friends and the society that has been your home for 72 days.
In survival stories like “Yellowjackets” and “Lord of the Flies,” the surviving group dissolves under chaos, but Bayona’s film differs greatly by giving the characters strong positive male friendships. The boys find that all social norms and rules are nonexistent in the Andes, and they must do the unthinkable. But they still create an unspoken pact to care for each other, a society formed on the mutual desire to survive, and focusing on these connections results in a heartfelt story rather than one focused on cannibalism and conflict. These expressions of healthy masculinity are refreshing, and whether it’s physically caring for one another or just shouldering each other’s mental burdens, the film shows that to have human connection is to live.
“Society of the Snow” is tragic and soul-crushing, but also strangely comforting. There is a warmth from the character relationships that almost makes the audience forget they are watching a tragic event unfold in the shattered chunks of the plane fuselage. This focus on human connection over shock value works in the film’s favor and results in a memorable film that celebrates the lives of the survivors and their fallen friends.
“Society of the Snow” was recently nominated for the category of best foreign film for the Oscars and is now streaming on Netflix.