Venice 2023: Bayona’s Harrowing Survival Film ‘Society of the Snow’
by Alex Billington
September 15, 2023
“What happened to us? What happens when the world deserts you?” Another film I was lucky to watch on the big screen at the 2023 Venice Film Festival this year was the latest film by acclaimed Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona (director of The Orphanage, The Impossible, A Monster Calls, and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom). It’s called Society of the Snow, also known as La Sociedad de la Nieve in Spanish, adapted from the book of the same name by Pablo Vierci. For his fifth feature, Bayona decided to head to South America to tell the famous story of the scary crash and survival of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571. This is the same story told in the 1993 movie Alive, directed by Frank Marshall, which anyone who grew up in the 90s is absolutely familiar with for grotesque reasons. This is all a part of the story, a key part of the story, as it’s a survival thriller. In the real world, their story became known as the “Andes flight disaster” (Tragedia de los Andes) and “Miracle of the Andes” (Milagro de los Andes). This is their story told on screen… Again.
Bayona started out as a horror filmmaker and has a sense for capturing the most frightening and terrifying aspects of this world we all live on. This is precisely why he’s perfectly suited to tell this story. It may be the exact same story told before in other documentaries, movies, and TV series, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an engrossing watch anyway. I’ll be damned if this didn’t move me to tears by the end. Bayona’s version is built on hyper-realism and a more humanistic approach, not only offering a supremely cinematic depiction of the crash and survival, not shying away from any of the gross reality of their conditions. It’s also an extensive film, running a full 2 & 1/2 hours. The first half moves pretty fast – I checked the time when they were about 17 days into their survival, quite a long time, and only an hour had passed by. Bayona’s focus was also on making the performances from the entire cast feel authentic – choosing many real Uruguayan actors instead of a Hollywood cast like Alive. This makes it that much more heart-wrenching to watch because we spend so much time with the kids, getting to know them & feel for them, as they struggle to survive in the mountains.
Almost everyone in the early 1990s heard about Alive because it quickly became known as the cannibalism movie. It became a major part of pop culture conversations, and even “The Simpsons” parodied it. Yes, it’s true, Society of the Snow is the same cannibalism story as Alive, and this isn’t a spoiler. It’s a major part of the story because, as the film explains, this is the only way they could survive; it’s the only thing that kept them alive. Bayona doesn’t try to waste time on how gross this is, he instead focuses on the spiritual aspect of survival – referencing how everyone is consuming the “Body of Christ” during Catholic mass. The idea of cannibalism weighs heavily on all the survivors, and the main character of the film’s actual story is Numa Turcatti, played by actor Enzo Vogrincic, the one survivor who refused to eat any of the other people the entire time. He ultimately doesn’t survive before they’re rescued, but his narration remains as a haunting memory that carries much of the film. There’s no point in going in to watch Society of the Snow hoping it might skirt over the cannibalism, because it is a part of what happened up there. One thing it seems viewers should be thinking about is – the truth that none of them would’ve ever made it out alive without doing this.
Bayona’s attention to detail on the realism and setting high up in the Andes mountains makes it absolutely entrancing to watch. If only everyone could experience it in a cinema. The cinematography by DP Pedro Luque is stunning. But it’s also a powerfully touching film grounded in humanity – all these young people barely hanging on to life, trying to survive… That’s what makes it so moving – the performances bring you closer to their desperation. I couldn’t tell if they shot some of this in the real location, as it all looks and feels so real. A great example of how exceptional filmmaking can make a difference telling the same story from another movie all over again. The best part of it is the score by Michael Giacchino, who has collaborated with Bayona before on Jurassic World. His score is magnificent, but this is almost always the case with him. I thought this kind of survival story wouldn’t jolt me, but it really did. Something about the snow and the majesty of these Andes mountains and just how hard it is to stay alive as human beings on this harsh planet.