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Review: ‘Society of the Snow’ is a gripping tale of surviving the unthinkable

Survivors stand, waving, around a plane wreck in the mountains.
“Society of the Snow” tells the true story of a rugby team stranded in the Andes after their plane crashes.
(Quim Vives / Netflix)
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A Uruguayan rugby team gets stranded in the Andes Mountains for 72 days after their plane crashes. Eventually the remaining survivors resort to eating the bodies of those who died in order to continue on. These true events that happened in 1972 — already the basis for a Hollywood film, 1993’s “础濒颈惫别” — now become filmmaker J.A. Bayona’s “Society of the Snow,” a retelling that finds in the material more than just a simple tale of the perseverance of the human spirit.

Based on Pablo Vierci’s book of the same name, the screenplay by Bayona, Bernat Vilaplana, Jaime Marques-Olearraga and Nicolás Casariego also explores the emotional and spiritual struggle of what the survivors went through, maintaining their humanity even while facing the most inhuman of acts. As one character observes, “What was once unthinkable has become routine.” (The film is Spain’s entry for the international feature Academy Award and recently made the Oscars’ shortlist in the category, as well as for makeup and hairstyling, original score and visual effects.)

“Society of the Snow” is Bayona’s first Spanish-language feature since his debut with 2007’s gothic horror fable “The Orphanage.” Subsequent English-language films such as 2012’s tsunami survival drama “The Impossible” and the big-budget spectacle of 2018’s “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” have given Bayona a confidence that is slick but not hollow. With limited shooting done in the actual remote location of the crash and more accomplished in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Spain, Bayona keeps the focus on the characters and what they are going through, allowing the effort of the production to fade to the background.

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A man sits on a snowbank.
Enzo Vogrincic in the movie “Society of the Snow.”
(Quim Vives / Netflix)

The crash itself is depicted with an unblinking, bone-crunching power, as seats and bodies collapse into each other like dominoes, making it seem unbelievable anyone survived at all. Later, having carved out a small sense of day-to-day normalcy in their waiting game, the survivors are struck by an avalanche that upends their lives once again.

It is somewhat inevitable to compare the film to the current television series “驰别濒濒辞飞箩补肠办别迟蝉,” in which a ’90s American high school girls soccer team crashes in the Pacific Northwest and also resorts to cannibalism. While that show attempts to strike a balance between the ordeal of being stranded and the adult survivors dealing with the ongoing aftermath of their trauma, “Society of the Snow” remains firmly rooted in the immediacy of the events.

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The rugby team is known as the Old Christians and the story places an emphasis not on individual heroics but on the collective effort of the group, their sacrifices up to and including the giving of their very bodies and flesh. As the final moments of the film make explicit, the meaning of what they went through is up to the individual, for each to take away what they will. Bayona mixes a sense of survivalist adventure with an otherworldly spirituality — the idea that they were somehow touched by something bigger, but also that the answers to what they needed were there with them all along.

'Society of the Snow'

In Spanish with English subtitles

Rating: R, for violent/disturbing material and brief graphic nudity

Running time: 2 hours, 24 minutes

Playing: In limited release Dec. 22; streaming on Netflix Jan. 4

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