‘Society of the Snow’ Review: A New, Terrifying Look at a Familiar Survival Story

Director J. A. Bayona's background in horror charges this retelling of the 1972 plane crash of a Uruguayan rugby team in the Andes, but the focus is on humanity not sensationalism.

The cast of Society of the Snow. Netflix

Some stories are told again and again because Hollywood is out of ideas. Others are echoed because a filmmaker finds a new perspective or fresh lens through which to tell it. That’s the case with J. A. Bayona’s Spanish-language drama Society of the Snow, which recounts the harrowing survival tale of a Uruguayan flight that crashed in the Andes in 1972. The disaster is well-known, especially by viewers who remember it happening in real time, but some previous onscreen incarnations have presented the 72-day ordeal from an oddly North American perspective. 

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SOCIETY OF THE SNOW ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
Directed by: J. A. Bayona
Written by: J. A. Bayona, Bernat Vilaplana, Jaime Marques, Nicolás Casariego
Starring: Matías Recalt, Agustín Pardella, Felipe González Otaño, Luciano Chatton, Valentino Alonso, Francisco Romero, Agustín Berruti, Andy Pruss, Simón Hempe, Juan Caruso, Esteban Bigliardi, Rocco Posca, Esteban Kukuriczka, Rafael Federman, Agustín Della Corte, Tomas Wolf
Running time: 144 mins.

The most of famous of these is Frank Marshall’s 1993 feature Alive, which starred Ethan Hawke as Nando Parrado, one of the 16 survivors. While certainly memorable and well-made, the film was in English and largely didn’t cast South American actors as the real-life characters. Here, Bayona, who hails from Spain, rights this error. His vast, Spanish-speaking cast is mostly unknown, which serves the story, and all of his actors feel firmly cemented in the culture from which the passengers hailed. It’s a real trick to make the viewer immediately care about the characters, but Bayona pulls it off within minutes, introducing us to a lively group of young men excited to travel from Montevideo to Santiago for a rugby match. 

The flight was primary comprised of the rugby players and their families, but a few brought friends as well. One of these is Numa Turcatti (Enzo Vogrincic Roldán) who is tagging along to meet girls and see a new city. He becomes the emotional point of connection for the audience, narrating key moments even beyond his tragic demise. It’s not a spoiler, of course, to know that many of the characters don’t make it. The plane crash, filmed with gritty, immersive realism, happens only minutes into the film, stranding the group high in the snowy mountains without almost no food or shelter. The question isn’t who will survive the crash; it’s how. 

Enzo Vogrincic Roldán (l) as Numa Turcatti in Society of the Snow. Netflix

That survival is difficult to watch at times. Bayona’s history as a horror director serves him well as bodies begin to shut down and react to the elements. An avalanche covers the plane wreckage with everyone inside and you can actually feel the claustrophobia and panic (those who have seen the director’s The Impossible will recall his skill for these kinds of moments). As the days tick by, there’s an underlying terror that’s impossible to shake. But there’s also friendship and resilience. Several survivors are determined to hike for help. They’ll do anything to outlast the winter and it’s inspiring to watch. Bayona is also appropriately careful with the cannibalism storyline, which is handled delicately and never gratuitously. 

The film is based on Pablo Vierci’s book La Sociedad de la Nieve, but Bayona and his team also interviewed many survivors, as did the actors. That level of research and insight shows, immersing viewers in a particular time and place where the small details leave a lingering impact. Bayona focuses on the humanity not the sensationalism, showcasing poignant moments of love and care between the characters. It’s a tearjerker at times, sure, but what remains is how much a person can endure under impossible circumstances. How can someone be this resilient? It seems unknowable, but movies like this help us to get closer to the truth of our existence. It’s a difficult watch, but an important one. 

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Society of the Snow’ Review: A New, Terrifying Look at a Familiar Survival Story