Sara Vilkomerson’s Guide To This Week’s Movies: Survivors’ Guilt

It’s a story that can still amaze after 35 years: In October 1972, an airplane carrying members of the Old Christians, a young Uruguayan team of rugby players, took off for a match in Chile. The plane lost contact with the control tower, and for 10 days, search-and-rescue teams sent out by Argentina, Chile and Uruguay found no trace of any plane or the 45 passengers. Heavy snow started to fall and hope was lost. Ten weeks later, a shepherd in a valley by the Andes Mountains saw two very skinny, dirty and tired men (who “smelled of the grave”), who turned out to be two of the 16 survivors of the crash. Amid all the press attention that followed, the survivors admitted that they ate the bodies of their fellow passengers in order to live. (Let’s take a moment and just think about what it would be like if Lost actually went here. Smoky monsters and disappearing islands are one thing, but we think ABC would draw the line at cannibalism.) What happened during those 10 weeks is the subject of the documentary Stranded: I Have Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains.

This is not the first retelling of this saga. Remember the 1993 Ethan Hawke-helmed Alive? But what director Gonzalo Arijon managed to do is something fairly extraordinary: He persuaded all of the 16 survivors to work on the film with him; tell their stories; and actually take a plane back to the original desolate spot on the mountain (appropriately called the Valley of Tears) where they battled hunger, thirst, injuries and an ungodly amount of snow to survive. Hearing these men, with their creased faces and haunted eyes, talk about the initial crash that killed 20 of their friends and family, or of the avalanche that killed the other eight a few weeks later, is incredibly powerful stuff. How much you will be moved will come down to your feelings on dramatic reenactments (which probably comes down to how much Lifetime and Oxygen television you watch on a regular basis). Regardless of how you feel about these little interstitials, it is just about impossible not to get caught up in this absolutely incredible story of survival and human tenacity. Mr. Arijon is a respectful chronicler and tastefully stays away from the sensational aspects of the story; he concentrates on the survivors’ feelings of guilt and on their current families (many of whom traveled to the crash site, too). By the time the film gets to the inevitable eating of the bodies of the crash and avalanche victims, all of the 16 struggle to put into words their feelings, and in the grand scope of the horrors they endured, this small piece of the retelling is much less important than their struggle to understand why they survived when others didn’t.

Stranded opens today at Film Forum. Sara Vilkomerson’s Guide To This Week’s Movies: Survivors’ Guilt