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.…

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