Film Review: “The 33″—Truth is More Frightening Than Fiction

Avoiding overly melodramatic images, The 33 is a true horror story on screen, one that we can identify with in the deep, fearful recesses of our collective subconscious.

The 33, directed by Patricia Riggen. At the AMC Loews Boston Common and other New England cinemas.

A scene In the film "The 33." Photo: Alcon Entertainment.

A scene in the film “The 33.” Photo: Alcon Entertainment.

By Paul Dervis

Mexican director Patricia Riggen has an excellent record with a small body of work. She has made seven films thus far, only five of them full-length features, but she has amassed 11 awards at various festivals, including the Sundance Film Fest, where her piece, Family Portrait won the Short Filmmaking Award in 2005. She has also copped prizes at the Havana Film Festival and the Aspen Shortfest, just to name a few.

Because of her track record as well as her sensibilities (not to mention her cultural connection), she seemed like an apt choice to helm this project. Based on the true story of 33 Chilean mine workers trapped down under for 60 some odd days after a collapse at the San Jose mines in 2010, Riggen effectively dramatizes the physical and psychological struggles of this diverse group without cow-towing to the public’s craving for sensationalism. Avoiding overly melodramatic images, she creates what amounts to a true horror story on screen…one that we can identify with in the deep, fearful recesses of our collective subconscious.

Depending on a true ensemble cast, with a few star names to spruce up the picture, Riggen takes her time to unravel the story, but the suspense does not lessen even as the passing days heighten the grueling monotony of the workers’ plight. And with 33 victims to follow, it would have been easy (even excusable) for the film to only focus on a few. But, admirably, The 33 spreads out the moments spent among the men, sacrificing concentrated character study in order to evoke the intensity of the group dynamic…a good and somewhat brave choice.

Of course there are a few central characters. The foreman (Lou Diamond Phillips) who warned his superiors about the eminent danger represented by the mine, and Mario (Antonio Banderas), one of the long-term workers who reluctantly took control of distributing the rations as well as accepting a major role in steadying the morale of the group.

Outside the mountain, there was Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro), Chile’s Minister of Mining, who was overseeing the rescue, and Maria (Juliette Binoche), the sister of one of the miners who took it upon herself to organize the families during their vigil. Then there is Andre Sougarret (Gabriel Bryne), the leader of the rescue team that goes back and forth, ladling out hope and despair.

But the film never overlooks the small stories. One of the workers has both a wife and a girlfriend waiting outside; the women hate each other yet end up bonding in their common anxiety for their man. The pregnant wife of another miner reluctantly leaves the site—only after she has gone into labor. And then there is the American rescue ace who bullies his way into the efforts (an excellent cameo performance from James Brolin).

The visuals are impressively stark. There is no CGI phoniness here. Instead of massive special effects, we are given an honest and realistic image of what this catastrophe must truly have looked like. It is absolutely frightening when the tunnels give way to the rocks—this makes the human context of the drama all the more breathtaking.

And it is the psychological revelations of men under pressure that makes this film special. One memorable scene focuses on what the men believe to be their last meal—the food has run out. The 33 gives us the hallucinations of these poor trapped creatures. Each one envisions their loved ones, dressed to the nines, arriving with a feast filled with his favorite nourishment. Haunting music plays underneath the images—in reality, they are consuming a morsel of food from the last can.

It must be admitted that this film is too long. The attempt to rescue these workers is riveting; the aftermath is too much. The fascination of the three-month ordeal underground never wanes, but the petty conflicts generated among the men once they are being pulled out of their tomb is an anti-climax. The 33 is a bit over two hours; it could easily have been shaved to 90 minutes and been just as effective.

Still, the acting is uniformly understated, allowing the horrendous situation rather than the ‘acting’ be the key…and this approach works beautifully.

The 33 is that rare hybrid… a movie with a blockbuster budget that has the feel of a foreign film.

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.

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