Review | Society of the Snow | 2023

Director J.A. Bayona is no stranger to disaster films. His 2011 film, The Impossible, chronicled the 2004 tsunami that devastated Thailand, and even his 2018 foray into franchise filmmaking, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was a kind of disaster film in its own right. While I'd argue that his best film remains 2007's horror film, The Orphanage, Society of the Snow is perhaps one of the strongest efforts we've seen from him behind the camera, telling the story of the Uraguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes in 1972, resulting in great loss of life and eventually descended into cannibalism before their eventual rescue some 72 days later.

The story has been told on screen before, in Frank Marshall's 1993 film, Alive, starring Ethan Hawke, but Bayona seems determined to take a more realistic, less sentimental approach, most notably in his choice to cast actual South American actors instead of white people. It's certainly a harrowing tale - and Bayona treats it with the gravity it deserves, never allowing it to dip into sensationalism or mawkishness. The opening plane crash is an incredible sequence - Bayona contrasts the seeming normality of the flight with the increasing terror that all is not right in a way that feels both jarring and unnerving. But for the characters, the real test comes over the course of the next two and half months, in which they endure extreme cold, near starvation, and two avalanches, taking more lives and forcing them to make the impossible choice to eat their friends' remains in order to stay alive.

It's a grisly topic, to be sure, but Bayona handles it with great sensitivity. What really makes Society of the Snow stand out, however, is the way it refocuses typical "triumph over adversity" tropes for something more intimate. This isn't a film about finding faith or inner strength - these are people in an extraordinarily bleak situation who find a purpose for survival in each other. Their existential crisis points them not toward some higher ideal or purpose, but to each other, to help their friends survive through living...or by dying. That sense of duty to each other makes the film feel less like an attempt at hollow inspiration, and more like an honest examination of human behavior in extreme situations, even though with so many characters, it can be hard to really latch onto anyone in particular. The framing device doesn't fully work either, offering a POV from a character whose POV we can't possibly know - but it also works in tandem with the film's themes of living and dying for friendship, so it doesn't derail the movie. 

Bayona's focus on the lovely visuals of the Andes Mountains also never feels incongruous to the film's themes. That such horror can be found amongst such natural beauty is a key aspect of Bayona's POV, so the striking mountain vistas never feel distracting - they're almost a cruel irony, surrounding the survivors of the crash with breathtaking landscapes while subjecting them to some of the most horrific conditions imaginable. While it often feels a bit on the long side, it's hard to deny its sheer power - and the length certainly hammers home the the weeks and months that the survivors endured. In the end, Society of the Snow manages to make the unthinkable feel tangible and the horrific feel personal, taking a true life tale of disaster and treat it as both triumph and tragedy, covering tricky emotional waters with a sense of dignity and grace.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SOCIETY OF THE SNOW | Directed by J.A. Bayona | Stars Enzo Vogrincic, Agustín Pardella, Matías Recalt, Tomas Wolf, Diego Vegezzi | Rated R for violent/disturbing material and brief graphic nudity | In Spanish w/English subtitles | Now streaming exclusively on Netflix.


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