Nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film, it captures the desolation of the passengers stranded in the mountains after the 1972 Uruguayan plane disaster

Three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food, the doctor remarks the rule of three, a crude statement to delineate the relative importance of the three essential elements to maintain life. A glimmer of hope shines through in the hearts of those who have been stranded in the vast, ice-capped mountains of the Andes — where ‘life is an anomaly’ — for a couple of days. Soon, however, he adds, ‘but with the hard work and cold, our body is consuming twice or thrice the average amount of calories.’ The moment of relief vanishes, soon replaced with a pervading sense of despair.

Society of the Snow — nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film — brings the 1972 Andes flight disaster to the fore. A cinematic adaptation of Pablo Vierci’s book of the same name that carries first-person accounts of the 16 survivors, director JA Bayona’s eye for detail captures the desolate and dreary circumstances with a chilling precision as the push-and-pull ensues between the survivors and the mountain.

When the hope crashed

On October 13, 1972, a Uruguayan chartered plane that was to fly from Montevideo to Santiago, carrying 45 passengers and crew, including the 19 members of the Old Christians Rugby Team, crashed just a few kilometres before reaching its destination. The reports say that it was co-pilot Lieutenant-Colonel Dante Héctor Lagurara’s wrong assessment that the plane had overflown Curicó, the turning point to fly north, while the instrument showed otherwise. He began the descent to what he thought was the Pudahuel Airport in Santiago de Chile, only to realize that the plane was flying close to the mountain peak. He tried to take altitude, however unsuccessfully so, as a mountain ridge jabbed into the body of the aircraft, shearing off its two wings and tail cone. The remaining fuselage slid down a glacier, coming to a halting stop as it rammed into the ice and snow mound.

While some passengers were tossed out of the tail and died immediately, many couldn’t bear the frigid temperatures on the first night. They lie huddled close to each other, hugging tightly and warming each other up, as the captain cautioned them to stay awake, lest they freeze to death. This is one of the heart-warming scenes that the film builds upon, where compassion gives them the courage to go on. In fact, the strong and selfless friendships that allow one to wade through such inhospitable situations make this film stand apart from other tragedy-thriller films where desperation to live turns the survivor stone-hearted.

The radio doesn’t work. There is no other way to inform the outer world. All they can do is wait. On the first morning after the crash, when the sun offers respite from the spine-chilling cold night, they are high on hope. They are confident that the search operation will find them. They are coming — the captain assures them. When the search operation plane flies over them for the first time, they are happy, shouting at the top of their voices to attract the pilot’s attention. But the plane, failing to notice them, flies away. They feel dejected but haven’t lost all hope. They make a cross on the ice and use mirrors from the aeroplane’s glass window to reflect sunlight the next time the search plane comes for them. Even this time around, they are not noticed.

Eating friends for survival

The first thud of despondency strikes when they tune in to the radio to realise that the search operation has been abandoned after completing its 10-day protocol. It’ll resume after thawing has begun. The depiction of the scene is deeply unsettling —the temporary joy of turning the radio on and streaming the message of their survivorship to the outside world morphs into pressing sadness. They shout, cry, beat their chests, and tumble on the snow, but the mountains stand mercilessly silent, returning their echoes.

The hope to escape the dread of the mountains and reunite with their family and friends dies young. The only thing they can clutch on to is their life. But their bodies are showing signs of decay. Their muscles are atrophied. The urine has turned black. They have exhausted their meagre food supplies. They chew on cigarette stubs, eat scabs, and feed on insect skeletons. But this doesn’t satiate their growing hunger.

The film is a cinematic adaptation of Pablo Vierci’s book of the same name that carries first-person accounts of the 16 survivors.

The film is a cinematic adaptation of Pablo Vierci’s book of the same name that carries first-person accounts of the 16 survivors.

It is at this point that the film delves into cannibalism — an issue that Alive (1993), a straightforward film on a similar theme directed by Frank Marshall, decided to oversee. Even here, the director seems overly self-conscious as the film teeters into this dangerous territory. There have been multiple references from the Bible, acts of contrition, and an undercurrent of guilt. Even during the actual incident, the survivors were so scared of the backlash that they told the general public that cheese and packaged food were their staples.

The initial resistance comes from the ideas of ‘sin’ by these devout Christians (as further outlined in an early scene where the players are attending Mass) — and while the dead bodies are not cut up for the first few days, hunger becomes pressing, and they are left with no option. Strauch brothers (Eduardo and Fito) take the initiative: Eduardo Strauch, incidentally, recounts all this in his memoir Out of the Silence: After the Crash (2019). They make meat away from the eyes of others. “It becomes easier with ice.” A fellow survivor remarks, while offering a piece to Numa, the narrator, whose steadfast belief doesn’t let him consume it.

Crossing the mountain

Eventually, he has to relent. There is no other choice. This is, in fact, one of the central preoccupations of the film: to question the fragile ground of the beliefs imposed by the religion, and in a way, the very existence of a monolithic God. But it doesn’t stop there, it also asks what it means to be God. Is it just a convenient construct for times of need or does it mean anything larger, grander? Arturo, who treats even the earlier avalanche as luck and not God’s test, even tells Numa, “My God is different from yours. Because your God tells you what to do at home and not on the plane…”

There is looming sadness, but it is to the screenplay’s credit that infuses it with lighter, funny moments that the constancy of a single emotion doesn’t bog us down. There is a scene where they listen to a bird squealing after days — and suddenly these rough-and-tough rugby boys begin to imitate it and break into peals of laughter.

With cinematography that contrasts expansive mountains against tiny human bodies and realistic depictions of hitting snow storms and dying passengers, the director delineates that the chances of survival are grim. Even grimmer are the chances to make it back. But then the inevitability of hope — what Nietzsche called the worst of evils — strikes them. They find the broken tail of the plane. There are batteries, food, and coats. They again fix the radio and shout to the outer world that they are alive. Even after two months. However, they couldn’t succeed.

The only way is to walk eastwards, climb the Andes, and reach the other side. It is akin to suicide. But they have no other option. It is then a combination of luck, destiny and God’s will — and, most of all, their indomitable spirit and a profound camaraderie — that might help them cross the mountain.

Society of the Snow is currently streaming on Netflix

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