Film Review: “Society of the Snow” — Unspeakable Tragedy, Unstoppable Survival
By Peg Aloi
Society of the Snow, directed by J.A. Bayona. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema.
This is an epic, breathtakingly moving, and unforgettable film about a brutal fight against cold, starvation, and fear.
J. A. Bayona’s The Impossible (2012) portrayed the deadly tsunami that occurred the day after Christmas in Thailand in 2004. The narrative follows a small number of characters, including a family of visiting American tourists who are separated by the destructive weather and ensuing chaos. They were separated for days, literally swept away from each other by wind and water. Realistic scenes of crashing waves and powerful winds, combined with detailed looks at the terrifying aftermath of death, injury, and devastation and a suspenseful journey of loss and reunion, made it unlike any disaster film seen before. Perhaps because the world had seen so much of the catastrophe via video and social media, a sense of recognition and compassion greeted this cinematic retelling only a few years later.
With Society of the Snow, Bayona takes on a harrowing, emotionally profound story that is based on the real life survival of a handful of passengers whose plane crashed in the Andes in October of 1972. The plane’s passengers included the players on a Uruguay soccer team who were headed to a match in Chile. Flying over the snow-covered Andes, the plane collided into the side of a mountain, instantly killing 29 of the 45 people on board, including the pilot and copilot. In the immediate aftermath, despite suffering shock and grave injuries, some of the remaining passengers did their best to create shelter against the icy winds using the plane cabin, even as they were mourning the loss of the other passengers.The intensity of the crash and the intimate urgency of the ensuing fight to stay alive will stand among the most heart-stopping sequences of contemporary cinema.
Bayona co-wrote the screenplay with three others (Bernat Vilaplana, Jaime Marquès, and Nicolás Casariego), basing the film’s events on the reporting of journalist Pablo Vierci. As Society of the Snow begins we’re introduced to some of the characters at the center of this horrific, heroic tale of overcoming insurmountable odds. The young men on the team are full of hopes and dreams; there’s good-natured humor and camaraderie as well as the cocky arrogance of the young and healthy. In an instant they are thrust into extreme conditions and at the mercy of a pitiless Mother Nature. Other passengers need emergency treatment and comfort, including family members of some of the team. With very few medical supplies, almost no food, no fresh water, and very little warm clothing, they somehow find a way to stay alive in the early days as they struggle to come to grips with their shock and the frightening severity of their situation.
As with any story with multiple characters in a singular location, the challenge is to create engaging, overlapping story arcs that propel the drama along. This takes deft writing and direction, not to mention strong acting. The phenomenal ensemble cast could hardly be better. Selective flashbacks add intriguing psychological nuance as the story progresses; they lend a dimension of normality to the narrative’s razor edge depiction of agony and struggle. A tensive score by Michael Giacchino (Up, Coco, Ratatouille) underscores contrasting moods of ferocity and tenderness. Award-winning Uruguayan cinematographer Pedro Luque has crafted a spellbinding visual experience that encompasses sweeping grandiose landscape imagery and grueling, intimate portraits of the individual characters.
On one level, this is a coming-of-age story in which the young men on the soccer team fight to stay alive as they care for one another. The grave choices they face leave them traumatized and existentially shattered. “What was once unthinkable, has become routine” one of them says in a soft voiceover, as they survive another day by having to accept that their only food source will be the passengers who have perished before them. Understandably, the taboo and horror of cannibalism is almost too much for some of them to bear. Their religious beliefs and naïve faith run up against an intractably harsh reality: no miracle or savior seems imminent. On top of that, just as their situation settles into a semblance of stability — even fleeting comfort — calamity strikes again and the situation becomes even more dire than before.
Of course, the triumphant survival of fourteen passengers is at the heart of this astounding story. But this is not your standard feel-good fable about the indomitable human spirit triumphing over adversity. Alongside their astounding efforts and endurance, these men must battle with pain, grief, and debilitating despair. Society of the Snow is far more than a well-made thriller that recreates a historic event. It is a chronicle about the unforeseeable, of life suddenly stripped down to its essence, of an elemental confrontation with cold, darkness, and fear.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Critics Choice Awards, and the Alliance for Women Film Journalists. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.