Spanish filmmaker JA Bayona’s new film, Society of the Snow, is set in a remote Andean glacier, where, in October 1972, the survivors of a plane crash attempted to do the impossible and survive until rescue came. Faced with starvation, the group, comprising young Uruguayan rugby players and a few family members, finally turned to cannibalism to do it.
Shot at altitude in the icy Sierra Nevada mountains in Spain, this gripping, emotional retelling of the Andes flight disaster plonks you right in the middle of that frostbitten hell and leaves you feeling not just for its victims, but a little for the cast of young Uruguayan and Argentinian actors and crew who recreate it so effectively here. You hope they had thermals on.
Those real locations make a real difference: there’s none of the stageyness of Frank Marshall’s Alive, Hollywood’s 1993 take on this story (although that one, too, was partly filmed at altitude). There’s the savage bite of the cold and haunting whistling of the wind as it buffets the fuselage, inside which the clutch of survivors huddle. You share the survivors’ despair when they learn, via a patched-up radio, that the search for them has been called off.
Unlike his tsunami movie The Impossible, where Bayona faced criticism for centring a handful of westerners in an overwhelming Asian catastrophe, Society of the Snow is careful to memorialise the dead in a moving, meaningful way. Each death gets a captioned epitaph, and many of the young men are afforded a lump-in-the-throat flashback to happier days.
The depiction of the crash will put you off air travel forever. Bodies fly as the plane is torn in two by a jagged peak, and flesh and metal pile-up as the front half eventually comes to rest on a remote glacier. (Pan’s Labyrinth’s Oscar-winning special effects make-up artists David Martí and Montse Ribé craft injuries that are firmly not for the squeamish.) Then comes the beyond-harsh reality of weeks at altitude: pee turns black, brain capacity diminishes, and cigarettes and shoelaces are used as nourishment. A human burns three times as many calories at this altitude, we learn, so each foray away from the plane takes a huge toll.
As with Alive, there are moments of boy’s own adventure in the ensuing struggle to find help, but in general this is a sadder, more reflective film. The characters, from the optimistic Marcelo (Diego Vegezzi) to genial outsider Numa (Enzo Vogrincic Roldan), who provides the film’s voiceover, are enterprising, lacking in self-pity and slowly broken down by what they’re enduring. As beards grow and cheeks begin to sink, it’s tough to keep track of who’s who, although it’s never hard to feel for them when new disasters come knocking.
As for the cannibalism, it’s normally a cinematic taboo reserved for zombies and the odd serial killer, and Bayona spares us the details. Instead, he zeroes in on the spiritual and psychological toll this moral quandary takes on these young Catholic men. It’s the film’s real strength: the idea of an unholy sacrament that fills their bellies but drains their souls.