Review: Society of the Snow

History says that the Andes flight disaster killed 29 people, while 16 miraculously survived. Society of the Snow is the story of 45 people who died and how 16 new people were born on the mountain.

J. A. Bayona tells the story of the Andes through minute yet horrific details and brutal juxtapositions. Take Society of the Snow’s buildup to the initial plane crash. We see Numa Turcatti, the film’s narrator and the last of the initial survivors to die on the mountain, eagerly listening to Ramón Saúl Martínez explain the trajectory of the plane. Martínez, who is minutes away from a horrible death when the plane’s tail is torn off and he is sucked out into the abyss of the Andes, confidently explains that the plane will cross Planchón Pass in the Andes and proceed past Curicó in Chile, before landing in Santiago. This exposition is intercut with exterior shots of the plane battling turbulence, struggling through the air above the Andes mountains, about 40 miles away from Curicó. It shows exactly what’s going wrong without the audience requiring any prior knowledge of South American geography. It’s deft, clever editing that paves the way for the two hours of horror that follow it.

Details like this completely transform the tragedy of the Andes. I intimately knew the story of the crash, having read multiple books on it. But no account of the story has the particular cadences and agonies of Society of the Snow, not even Pablo Vierci’s book of the same name. I audibly gasped at the horrific rendering of the domino-like body crush of the crash, with limbs and necks crunching.

I didn’t anticipate how brief the crash itself would be — from the moment of impact to the cut to black, the scene lasts only 41 seconds. And the whole sequence set on the plane lasts nearly five minutes. Bayona and editor Jaume Martí engineer the crash to be maximally abrupt and catastrophic. In 41 seconds, everything changes. And the 72 days that follow feel agonizing by comparison.

But there has to be a context for the 72 days outside civilization to have meaning. And that context inevitably centers the society outside the snow. These were middle-class Catholic rugby players from early 1970s Uruguay, a little agriculture hub sandwiched between South America’s two largest countries. Its initial prosperity died as Europe took advantage of it, sending Uruguay into poverty and crisis. This is mostly unsaid in Society of the Snow, communicated through a few shots of students protesting in the nation’s capital of Montevideo. But those few shots add exponential flavor to the story, communicating the moment this disaster came from.

One wonders if anyone without the skills of some young Uruguayan rugby players could have survived the Andes. Certainly it’s a story that was possible because of where the survivors came from. And it’s one whose meaning is transformed by the fact that months after the rescue, a C.I.A.-backed coup seized power in Uruguay. It was a little victory for a small country before neoliberalism strangled it into submission. 16 people became national heroes. Not many countries get to have that.

But that’s an idea that Society of the Snow refutes. Again, the 16 people who returned to Montevideo were not the ones who crashed on the mountain. They built a new society in the Andes. Their understanding of humanity and cooperation changed forever. Heroism was impossible here — only survival was an option.

This democratic instinct, Bayona’s decision to present all the victims as equally important, leads to Society of the Snow’s most brilliant idea, which is to have the story narrated by Numa Turcatti, who died just 10 days before the rescue. By showing the disaster through the eyes of a dead man, Society of the Snow turns the heroic survivalist narrative into a ghost story. It brings all 45 victims of the crash down to the same level. As Turcatti says of the supposed survivors, “They were dead like us. And only they got to return home.”

And it’s this idea that makes Society of the Snow so viscerally disturbing. As distressing as are the scenes of cannibalism, the snapping limbs, and the slow deaths of some initial survivors, the real horror is the survivors’ complete abandonment of humanity. In the Andes, they’re rejected from civilization and meet God, in all His resplendent horror. They leave the world behind. And they return to it transformed like Moses on Sinai.

A more naive director would spell this all out. And a more cynical one would make this story depressing. Yet genuinely funny moments of bonding between the survivors and awe-inspiring views of the Andes make Society of the Snow a legitimately beautiful piece of cinema. And a lot of its beauty is in small parts. Survivor Nando Parrado making a cameo at the airport, where he greets the victims before they board the plane, made me gasp. Another survivor, Carlos Páez, plays his own father, reading out the names of the survivors on the radio. Michael Giacchino’s score has remained in my head for days, and when the Academy fails to nominate Enzo Vogrincic Roldán for Best Actor, it’ll be their most egregious failure since Richard Farnsworth lost the Oscar to Kevin Spacey for American Beauty. Society of the Snow is staggering, a work of horror unlike any I’ve ever seen. I doubt I’ll ever stop thinking about it.

And I’m glad J. A. Bayona has directed something that made me nauseous for different reasons than The Rings of Power.