by Lee Purvey
The 2010 mining accident depicted in The 33 -- in which that number of Chilean men found themselves trapped underground for more than two months before their eventual rescue -- exists too immediately in our collective memory for anyone to be surprised by the film’s ending. The image of the miners emerging one by one from a rescue capsule that lifted them 700 meters from beneath the earth was broadcast internationally to an audience intrigued by the peculiar drama of their story. Though well aware she is playing with an open hand in her new feature, director Patricia Riggen is surprisingly willing to let the same question that so many wondered five years ago -- Will the miners make it out alive? -- dictate the parameters of her retelling of this true event.
Director: Patricia Riggen
Producers: Robert Katz, Edward McGurn, Mike Medavoy
Writers: Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten, Michael Thomas, Jose Rivera (screen story), Héctor Tobar (book)
Cinematographer: Checco Varese
Editor: Michael Tronick
Music: James Horner
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, James Brolin, Lou Diamond Phillips, Mario Casas, Jacob Vargas, Juan Pablo Raba, Oscar Nuñez, Tenoch Huerta, Marco Treviño
US Theatrical Release: November 9, 2015
US Distributors: Alcon Entertainment, Warner Bros.
Adapted from solid source material (Héctor Tobar’s well-received 2014 book Deep Down Dark), The 33’s team of story and screenplay writers -- including Craig Borten (Dallas Buyers Club) and Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries) -- purge the script of most of the usual Oscar season duds, leaving the film’s ensemble cast free to do the heavy lifting. Mostly Mexicans and Spaniards, with a few peripheral roles filled by Chileans, the cast speaks accented English, occasionally dropping in a few Spanish phrases -- comically, these include native English speakers like Irishman Bob Gunton (who appears as Chilean president Sebastián Piñera) and Cuban-American Oscar Nuñez (The Office’s Oscar Martinez, here in another comedic role as an utterly unsuave adulterer). This central conceit is a tough pill to swallow -- I wouldn’t blame viewers who decide to pass on this demerit alone -- but the truth is, after the uncomfortable first couple of minutes, the film’s flagrant inauthenticity melts into the background of a more or less compelling story of survival.
The driving sector of Chile’s thriving economy, mining is a grueling life sentence for many in the country’s northern Atacama Desert. From a Bolivian immigrant (Tenoch Huerta) starting his first day on the job to a veteran two weeks from retirement (Gustavo Angarita), the characters in The 33 represent a variety of points on the same trajectory. Most of the miners hold an ambivalent attitude towards their chosen profession. Darío Segovia (Juan Pablo Raba) relies on his job to fund his destructive drinking; expectant father Álex Vega (Mario Casas) weighs his income and his safety as he considers a less lucrative position at a local bodyshop. But as soon as a major collapse blocks the team’s only path to the surface, these men become equal: 33 mouths to feed in a numbers game that pits the speed of the rescue efforts against the dwindling supplies of those trapped below.
And the shadow of death makes for flattering lighting, as this sudden shift from the quotidian to the mortal imbues half-baked characters with an intensity wholly derived from their situation, but no less affecting as such. This is particularly true of Antonio Banderas, who, long misused by the Hollywood system, has finally found a deserving role in Mario Sepúlveda, the bombastic miner who served as informal leader and spokesman of the trapped 33 during their struggle to stay alive and first encounters with the outside world. Whereas Banderas’ significant magnetism has too frequently been crammed into flat racial caricatures, the actor at last finds himself in a story that could conceivably necessitate the strange mix of courage, charisma, and insanity he’s been delivering to bad action and kid's movies for over two decades. Though we know how this story will end, we forget when we watch Banderas, his manic survivalism reminiscent of those certain Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp performances that so artfully toed the line of the absurd. He’s truly a pleasure to watch.
If only the same could be said for the drama playing out topside. When word of the collapse spreads through the community, the trapped men’s families congregate outside the mine, demanding news of their husbands, brothers, sons, and lovers. Details are unforthcoming and progress slow until Chilean Minister of Mining Laurence Golborne (played by Brazilian superstar Rodrigo Santoro) arrives on the scene and starts pouring money into rescue efforts the mine owner (Mario Zaragoza) refuses to finance. While an explorative team drills into the rock, needing first to locate the men before they can devise a plan to extract them, the families set up camp, waiting through an excruciating 17 days before receiving word their relatives are alive. Largely a forgettable bunch (though Chilean-American actress and singer Cote de Pablo provides a pleasant musical interlude as Alex’s pregnant wife), the big name here is a woefully misplaced Juliette Binoche. As an empanada saleswoman turned clamouring advocate for her trapped brother, the French actress’ María Segovia is a tough sell. Communing across chainlink with the comely Minister, María’s beseeching stares mercifully do not reach the erotic territory for which they seem headed, but they never come close to compelling drama either.
While Riggen isn’t yet a sure bet behind the camera -- following her promising debut Under the Same Moon (2007), Girl in Progress (2012) flopped, both critically and commercially -- The 33’s producers spare no expense on the supporting pieces. In the hands of Riggen’s go-to cinematographer Checco Varese, the movie was shot entirely on location in northern Chile and in real mines in Colombia, the collapse handled by seasoned special effects man Daniel Cordero. The late, Oscar-winning composer James Horner provides a score that is alternatingly sinister and redemptive, full of arcane woodwinds and plucky acoustic guitars that are probably not “Chilean” in any meaningful way, but will assuredly be mistaken as such by the average Western viewer. These pieces together comprise a lush cinematic world, the sweeping desolation of the Atacama balanced by the claustrophobic, sweaty quarters 700 meters underground.
At times, The 33 tries to match its epic aesthetic with themes bigger than its sensational story. Foremost among these is the question of opportunity in Chile, which, despite being an economic leader among Latin American nations, has one of the higher inequality levels in the region, as measured by the World Bank’s GINI index. The miners know that rescue is expensive and, as a result, improbable. Even when their escape is all but assured and they get their first taste of the fame that tragedy has bestowed upon them, Mario remains a realist: “We walked in miners, and we will walk out miners.” And he’s right. Uncompensated by their employer, which an end title informs us was found “not guilty” of negligence, these men will return to lives all too similar to those they left behind.
But here Riggen and her staff of writers find themselves in a geological metaphor. A successful campaign coordinated at the highest levels of Chilean political power, the rescue was the exception to a rule of societal inequality under Piñera -- not surprisingly it was also the moment at which the president enjoyed his highest approval rating while in office. A story that depends on the redemption of institutional power for its very resolution, The 33’s attempts to paint Chilean social life in anything but the broadest, most inoffensive of strokes come across as hypocritical. By choosing to make a straightforward account of a thrilling catastrophe, Riggen finds herself as trapped as her characters.