In 1972, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crashed deep in the Andes, en route to Chile. The 45 passengers included the Old Christian Rugby team, friends, and family. 29 of them initially survived. A whole 72 days later, only 16 lived to tell the tale. And told they did in a carefully composed chronicle authored with journalist Pablo Vierci. Spanish director J. A. Bayona made a film bearing the same title, Society of the Snow, in collaboration with Vierci to bring this monumental survival tale to the Netflix screens, big and small. As the closing title of this year’s Venice Film Festival, it reaffirms the need for togetherness in the face of insurmountable dangers.
The snow-covered Andes are an emanation of the sublime: shiny silver, vast, perilous. Captured in wide-lens long shots, they appear foreign and impossible-to-touch, so when the passengers emerge from under the debris, this landscape’s infinitude overcomes all hope. Making home out of a hostile environment is no easy feat and the men go through all stages of grief in their own pace––some deny, others bargain––but despondency hangs strong in the air. Bayona is not glorifying the heroic act of surviving and does not single out any particular heroes––even the presumed lead, Numa (Enzo Vogrincic), does not take center-stage long. Society of the Snow is instead a group portrait, or a portrait of a group that came together only after the disaster struck. Interestingly enough, what we think of team dynamics (before the crash) play very little in the construction of this new “society” built on sacrifice and the undying will to live, even as the odds are firmly stacked against you.
Bayona has worked across genres, but he seems adept to turn survival films into introspective pieces. Plumbing psychological depth thorough spectacle is a gambit, yet he’d done it before in the tsunami-disaster drama The Impossible; if one looks closer, there are certain elements of this also in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Though he doesn’t always succeed to work both wide and deep, with Society of the Snow he strikes a balance that makes it a satisfying, at times very touching watch.
There are two particualrly, immensely thrilling scenes where cinematographer Pedro Luque makes use of all the claustrophobic tools at hand––wide lens, close-ups, space distortion, quivering camera, canted angles––to trap us in the same space with less and less air to breathe. One is served near the film’s beginning and it is––as expected––the plane crash itself, elaborate and processual enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Once the plane splits in parts and survivors uncover all the bodies of their deceased friends, a deafening calmness sets in before the urge to find salvation. With its slow-burning rhythm, the film allows time for horrors to percolate for both characters and audience, but also makes sure there is no sensory overload turning this humanist drama into horror. However, when an avalanche hits the debris-made-shelter it’s truly the film’s most terrifying scene; even if you expect any unmentionable taboos to be broken, you won’t find any graphic images. In this case Bayona wanted to show what it’s like being on the inside while snowed under––the result hits that tasteful middle ground between sensationalized action scene and truly engaging set-up, designed to empathetically draw the viewer in. Just that now, empathy is intensified to the point where it feels like a strong pull by the throat.
Throughout the film are so many points of no return that one stops counting; the suffering is enormous, but human resilience is stronger. Society of the Snow shows survivors bonded by trauma, shame, and the prolonged experience of being at the brink of death together and, to convey that, Bayona needs no cinematic magic. His new film may be his most humanist yet, serving also as testimony to the dead who could not tell their own stories. On the one hand, Society of the Snow is a perfectly watchable film punctured by affect and empathy, and on the other it taps into the power of cinema to bear witness––even in the most conventional of genres––to those who no longer are with us.
Society of the Snow premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival and will be released by Netflix on January 4.