'Society of the Snow' Finds Moments of Breathtaking Beauty in Bleak Survival Story

Directed by J.A. Bayona

Starring Enzo Vogrincic, Agustín Pardella, Matías Recalt, Esteban Bigliardi, Diego Vegezzi, Fernando Contigiani García, Esteban Kukuriczka, Rafael Federman

Photo courtesy of Netflix

BY Barbara Goslawski Published Jan 3, 2024

Spain's shortlisted entry for Best International Feature Film to the Academy, Society of the Snow is no ordinary suspense thriller. A harrowing action film that depicts an arduous journey with an epic scope, director J.A. Bayona extends the story's impact by weaving a complex tapestry of emotions and styles. Beyond the adventure, there are elements of horror, drama and heartbreaking lyricism, all of which deepen the level of intimacy within the film and its relationship with the viewer.

Based on real-life events, Society of the Snow will be familiar to some and, in Bayona's hands, it becomes a truly affecting tale of solidarity and connection under the most unlikely of circumstances.

Adapted from Pablo Vierci's book of the same name about the 1972 flight from Uruguay to Chile that crashed into the Andes mountains, Society of the Snow focuses on the 16 survivors and the harsh conditions they endured in this frigid and inhospitable environment.

It quickly becomes obvious that survival is a near-impossible task. The chartered flight carried members of a Uruguayan rugby team on their way to play a match, some of whom had never travelled outside of their country — young men with their whole lives ahead of them, trapped with no resources.

As the film slowly but insistently builds up the dread and hopelessness of the situation, Bayona carefully establishes the bonds these young men forge as teammates, both before and after the crash. The director also stresses the critical importance of these deep relationships in their survival story as their reliance on each other grows, with some emerging as leaders while others struggle. 

It's easy to sympathize with all of them no matter their role, but at times it can be difficult to follow all the individual dramas due to the film's dogged pace of ebbs and flows. By portraying each tragic occurrence for every one of the survivors, the film becomes bogged down in details, emphasizing the film's near two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Thankfully, though, Bayona doesn't allow the film to lag too much, interrupting the slower phases with magical moments where hope is restored.

Despite being in such a relentless landscape, Bayona mixes up the tone with contrasting cinematic moods. Shafts of light stream into the darkest of places, illuminating the faces of the survivors even during the bleakest of times. There's an eerie yet stunning beauty to the cinematography of both the inside of the wreckage and the vast scenery as the sun gleams off the unforgiving environment. Bayona augments the reality of the situation with sensuous undertones, suggesting the overriding, albeit sometimes fading, resilience of their communal spirit.

In addition to Pedro Luque Briozzo Scu's cinematography, all of the other technical aspects of this film are similarly operating at the highest levels. Michael Giacchino's sumptuous score extends the stylistic shifts within the film into rich emotional realms, while Jaume Marti and Andrés Gil's meticulous editing charges the film with a visceral pulse. Combined together, Society of the Snow is a breathtaking experience, with the crash itself being a particularly indescribable sight on screen.

When the film slips into horror, Bayona uniquely penetrates that vision both thematically and visually, using flashes of the intimate loving care existing between these young, dying men to intensify the inherent terror of their circumstances. It's here that Society of the Snow rises above a run-of-the-mill survival story, as Bayona focuses on hopes and dreams, innocence, friendship and sacrifice through pure and awe-inspiring moments of emotion.

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