The story of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 has been told on screen before, most notably in Frank Marshall’s 1993 movie Alive. But J.A. Bayona’s Netflix movie Society of the Snow revisits it with a harrowing level of physical and psychological detail. Its complexities and moral dilemmas make it a far cry from Marshall’s feel-good story, and distance it from Hollywood disaster movies in general — including Bayona’s own saccharine 2012 tsunami drama The Impossible. Spain’s official submission for the 96th Academy Awards is an intimate version of the real-life story that most people associate with cannibalism.
Based on Pablo Vierci’s book of the same name, Society of the Snow is a brutal, chilly survivor story about 571’s crash en route to Santiago, Chile, in 1972. Bayona’s approach to the “triumph of the human spirit” arc — often a broad, four-quadrant, feel-good cinematic flattening of real events — is both scrutinous and rigorous. It turns the concept inside out, presenting the ordeal of 571’s survivors as a murky scenario that we’ve been granted secret, intimate access to.
The film begins with sweeping shots of the snow-capped Andes, a picturesque setting hiding painful secrets. One of the plane’s passengers, the reserved, contemplative Numa Turcatti (Enzo Vogrincic), provides mournful voice-over. He’s just one of the many young Uruguayan rugby players stranded in the mountains, far from civilization. Bayona and co-screenwriters Bernat Vilaplana, Jaime Marques, and Nicolás Casariego tether the story to Turcatti’s perspective for most of the movie, though they toy with the limitations of this decision in intriguing ways. After all, no single point of view can capture the full breadth of what the survivors experienced. Bayona seems acutely aware of that idea as he’s chronicling events: In cases where Turcatti wasn’t present, the events come to life through recollections shared with him later on.
But Turcatti’s voice-over binds the movie together because of his unique place in this story. He isn’t the hero, just someone reckoning with his uselessness in an increasingly despondent situation. The closest the film comes to a traditional “hero” protagonist is hotshot Roberto Canessa (Matías Recalt), whose early scenes portray him as capable but selfish on the rugby pitch, and whom the other players admonish for his lack of teamwork. The seeds for a straightforward character arc are planted early on — another version of the story might’ve followed Canessa finally learning to put others before himself. But Bayona isn’t focused on salvaging neat platitudes from the wreckage.
From the moment turbulence consumes the rugby team’s aircraft, their physical and emotional anguish takes center stage. Bayona re-creates the plane crash in terrifying detail, cutting between shattered limbs and punctured organs at the moment of impact. It’s ugly and voyeuristic, but in service of the film’s unflinching commitment to realism.
The visual warmth of the team’s initial scenes on the ground is quickly replaced by a frigid palette that keeps growing starker as the film goes on, not only with less saturated color to portray the increasing hopelessness, but an increase in contrast that enhances each lesion and injury, and highlights the contours of the survivors’ increasingly bony bodies as they run out of food. The more ragged and gaunt they become, the more captivating the movie gets, and yet the more difficult it is to look at.
The crash itself is sure to remind some viewers of ABC’s Lost, which also makes the show’s composer, longtime Disney/Pixar stalwart Michael Giacchino, a perfect fit here. He brings the requisite intensity, but rather than refashioning his mysterious and propulsive sounds from Lost, he takes a more classical, operatic approach. He crafts a soundscape that echoes off the icy mountaintops surrounding the survivors, and shivers alongside them once night falls and the temperature plummets to lethal levels. Each hopeful grace note is accompanied by some ominous rumble, as though death were lurking just around the corner. The wreckage of the plane’s fuselage becomes the survivors’ escape from nightly snowstorms, but they can never shake the possibility of it becoming their tomb.
In the initial chaos and the scramble to make it out alive, it can be hard to parse who’s who among the 30 or so people who survive the initial crash. But soon, each character takes up a specific part in ensuring the group’s survival. Some treat the wounded, others rummage through suitcases for food, and so on. Each of these roles brings the characters to inevitable dilemmas about supplies and resources, as it becomes increasingly clear that help may never arrive. Bayona and cinematographer Pedro Luque make proficient use of short lenses during key character moments, with close-ups that feel uncomfortably close, yet distinctly awkward and off-kilter.
The vast majority of the film’s 144-minute runtime is spent in this isolated crash site, but the space never feels comfortable or familiar. Just when it seems like the worst is past, some shocking new development turns the entire scenario on its head, making survival seem impossible. The characters’ struggle to hold on to hope is a constant narrative throughline, often filtered through a theological lens, especially when the inevitable question of cannibalism rears its head.
None of the characters’ decisions come easily, and Bayona often films their dilemmas in powerful silence. (That’s a challenge for actors, but they rise to it uniquely and commendably here.) Sometimes, words aren’t enough to express the spiritual agony they feel over what they need to do to survive. While the camera rarely shies away from capturing the ugly extent of their experience — it usually veers between intimate observer and participant in the mad scramble to survive — there’s at least one key moment when it intentionally turns away from the action at the last possible second, as though the survivors’ decisions are too painful or shameful to witness.
If there’s one idea missing from Bayona’s portrayal of these events, though, it comes during the lengthy debate over the ethics of consuming human flesh. The debate forms a vital part of the film (and takes up a lengthy stretch of its run time), with the idea of religious damnation looming large over the conversation. But in spite of the distinctly Christian language employed, Bayona’s approach to this conundrum feels spiritual in an almost non-religious sense — or at least, a sense that’s only vaguely pious, rather than pinned to a specific doctrine. The characters are all Roman Catholic, and they consider the question from a standpoint of faith. But while the actual survivors were said to discuss cannibalism from the perspective of Holy Communion, the topic doesn’t come up in Society of the Snow. The film doesn’t necessarily suffer by omitting that argument. But given the permeation of ecclesiastical ideas throughout the screenplay, it does occasionally feel like powerful material may have been left on the table when it comes to how deeply inward the characters are forced to look as they navigate impossible choices.
Regardless, Society of the Snow is incredibly moving from start to finish. As fleeting flashes and memories of the world outside make the snow seem increasingly hellish, the film instills maddening fear through its deftly crafted soundscape. (The Shepard tone has rarely seemed so terrifying.) Bayona captures kindness and depravity in equal measure with his intimate camera, forcing the audience to bear witness to torment that it feels like we should have never been allowed to see.
Society of the Snow is streaming on Netflix now.