In 1972, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, chartered to fly a rugby team to Chile, crashed on a glacier in the heart of the Andes. Only 29 of the 45 passengers survived. In one of the world’s toughest environments, the survivors were forced to resort to extreme measures to stay alive.
Society Of The Snow is another immersive, gripping and impressive film from director, J. A. Bayona. Featuring powerful performances (Enzo Vogrincic is a particularly soulful standout) and a beautiful score by Michael Giacchino, it is at once devastating and terrifying and also beautiful and inspiring.
From the start, I was reassured about Bayona’s intentions in telling this story. He is not interested in exploiting the events that took place on the mountain after the plane crash. Society of the Snow seeks to remember and honour both those who died and those who survived.
While Bayona’s storytelling is sensitive and respectful, by its very nature Society of the Snow is a tough watch. Two scenes – the initial plane crash and, later, an avalanche - are particularly horrifying and place us at the centre of the action. Meanwhile, it is just as devastating to observe the physical and psychological challenges faced by the survivors.
All of these sequences are vitally important for us to, in some small way, understand the decisions that the survivors made. An act that seems at first unimaginable, becomes something different, something closer to love.
The film was inspired by Pablo Vierci’s book of the same name (which Bayona read while making The Impossible). In the book, Ramón “Moncho” Sabella recalls that the men “survived thanks to love, because we didn’t have anything else. We just had each other. We built a society from scratch, forged through friendships, abandoned in the coldest corner of the world.”
It is easy to understand why the survivors would feel anxious about yet another recreation of their experiences. In the Netflix documentary, Society of the Snow: Who Were We On The Mountain?, Eduardo Strauch asks us to imagine what the adaptation process was like for the survivors. “It’s like being transported back there”.
However, they were reassured after talking to Bayona and the film’s producers. Strauch explains that they “began to feel hopeful and had a sense of relief and joy because the story would be told with everyone included”.
While the film largely focuses Vogrincic's Numa, this is an ensemble piece. Casting director Maria Laura Berch did a truly incredible job – choosing actors who are not well known (many had only worked in the theatre) and then working with them for over six months. When the time came to shoot Society of the Snow, which took 140 days, the cast and crew had developed an extremely close bond. This environment allowed each actor to give a moving and powerful performance.
Bayona has talked a lot about the challenges of shooting Society of the Snow. He was insistent on authenticity and the use of practical effects. Some scenes were shot in freezing conditions at an altitude of 11,500 feet. “On set there’s a mountain to climb every single day. A metaphorical mountain,” he says in the Netflix documentary. “All scenes were physically and technically demanding”.
The film’s commitment to authenticity is extremely impressive from the recreation of the wreckage (five different fuselages were built), to the snow special effects, from the stunning cinematography to the superb make-up and hair-styling. "The production, art and wardrobe departments, among many others, give the actors the answers that they may not be able to find in the script,” Bayona explains. “That’s why, for example, you need to shoot on sets and in conditions that are as close to the real thing as possible”.
Each actor agreed to lose weight chronologically to portray the starvation faced by the survivors. This process was monitored by medical professionals and accentuated by the film’s impressive special effects and make-up team. The physical impact of the time spent on the mountain feels real.
Society of the Snow is an incredible feat of filmmaking. However, first and foremost, it is an extremely moving story of friendship, love and survival. “The film gives a voice to those who didn’t return home,” Roberto Canessa says in the Netflix documentary. “I feel like it has provided answers to all the lingering questions. It was an emotional period and this is much more than just a movie”.