Review: ‘Society of the Snow’ is a brutally realistic and heartbreaking retelling of disaster

Rugby isn’t a sport we get much of here in America, but it’s one of the primary sports people enjoy watching in other countries. In the early 1970s, a group of rugby players from Uruguay boarded a plane from Montevideo, Uruguay, to Santiago, Chile, for a rugby match. In the middle of October, which was the start of their springtime, the plane carrying the team crashed in the Andes mountains, and this true story is covered in the new Netflix film from J.A. Bayona, Society Of The Snow. 

Society of The Snow (or La sociedad de la nieve) is the incredible account of how the survivors of the crash struggled to survive in one of the harshest environments imaginable for almost two and a half months before being rescued. This film is in Spanish, and director J.A. Bayona is perhaps best known for The Impossible (with Tom HollandEwan McGregor, and Naomi Watts), a story about the tsunami that resulted from the 2004 earthquake in the Indian Ocean.

Society of the Snow. Image courtesy of Netflix.
Society of the Snow. Image courtesy of Netflix.

Like The ImpossibleSociety of the Snow is brutally realistic, both in depicting the initial plane crash and the desperate conditions the surviving passengers had to endure. Despite pushing towards an almost two-and-a-half-hour runtime, the taut screenplay and incredible events that unfold will keep both general audiences and critics riveted. Don’t mind The Snow this winter and join this Society; it’s not just one of the best International films of 2023; it’s one of the best films of any kind.

The story of Society of the Snow

There are minor spoilers ahead for Society of the Snow.

Society of the Snow starts with a sweeping camera shot of the snow-covered mountains and valleys of the Andes mountains. Numa (Enzo Vogrincic) speaks in a voiceover. He explains that he was one of the forty-five who boarded the plane that fateful day in 1972. As the camera glides along some streams of ice-cold water slicing through the snow-covered mountains, Numa’s voice continues, “Some say it was a tragedy. Others call it a miracle.” 

Then Numa poses some questions to the audience about what happens when the world abandons you; you’re faced with death and starvation, and it’s only you and the mountains. The scene cuts, and we’re suddenly under a group of players in a rugby match; we get a couple of quick shots of their faces as they struggle to push the pile. This group of men comprises two sides, each pushing the other direction to get control of the ball. 

Once the ball makes it way outside the pile, it ends up in the hands of one of the team’s stars, Roberto (Matías Recalt), who, despite the others calling for him to pass it, selfishly makes a run towards the goal line before getting tackled before he can score. Later in the locker room, while the men are cutting it up, Nando (Agustín Pardella) gives Roberto a hard time for hogging the ball before asking all the players for the fees they need to pay for the trip to their next match in Chile.

The rugby club’s fateful journey to Chile

Society of the Snow next takes us to a church service. We watch Numa sitting silently as the preacher reads from the Bible. he says, “Man must live, not on bread alone . . .” One of the players, Pancho (Valentino Alonso), walks in late and makes his way up between the church isles as the sermon continues. He has a piece of paper in his hand, which he passed through the rows to Numa, who we heard speaking to us during the intro. 

The note is a request for Numa to join the players on the flight to Chile; we discover that Numa is not one of the rugby players, but in one of the ensuing scenes, we watch him studying; he’s trying to become a lawyer. Some of his friends from the team meet with him over lunch and plead to get him to meet the Chilean girls they know in Santiago. The next day, we watch the young men from the Old Christians Club rugby union arrive at the airport and depart their various rides before boarding the aircraft for Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 on October 12, 1972.

The air crash is in Society of the Snow is a visceral experience

But midway through the first act of Society of the Snow, we watch as the flight transpires before our eyes. They begin to hit turbulence, and the plane struggles to climb up from one of the valleys between the mountain peaks. When I say this crash is a visceral experience, I mean it doesn’t pull any punches in how brutal it displays the insanely traumatic experience. The metal frame of the airplane crunches and crumples like aluminum foil, the bones in the legs and arms of passengers are snapped like twigs, and the sounds of screaming from pain and terror are eclipsed by the aircraft being shredded by the force of the impact into thousands of pieces. The ensuing fight for survival by those who walk out of the wreckage are some of the most powerful and engaging cinema sequences I’ve witnessed in 2023.

I really love movies based on real-life events. But plenty of films cover real-life disasters, survival stories, and tragedies that aren’t nearly as effective as Society Of The Snow. This film works so well because of the brilliant writing from J.A. Bayona. The writing structures this story out with moments of intense struggles for survival with quieter moments of connection and camaraderie between these men.

A tragic loss of young life

Every time someone from the crash dies in Society of the Snow, we’re given some onscreen text alerting us. We see their name and how old they were. Most of these young men were in their twenties; it’s truly heartbreaking that their lives were cut short so young in life. Both the writing and direction from Bayona were very solid and it’s clear from his previous disaster film that he got a handle on how to construct this type of story on paper and then execute it onto the screen. 

Society of the Snow. Image courtesy of Netflix.
Society of the Snow. Image courtesy of Netflix.

Music, makeup, and more elevate this film

Michael Giacchino’s score for the film, with its guitar, violin, and piano work flows with Society of the Snow’s intense highs and delicate lows. It only added depth to the impact of its emotional moments. On the acting front, an excellent ensemble cast was led by a truly fantastic performance from Enzo Vogrincic; his character’s plight as the film gets into the second act was heartbreaking. Although it was more subtle, it was also a very emotionally raw performance and a highlight that I still find hard to shake from my mind. 

Along with so many of Society of the Snow’s technical achievements, the makeup work was also extremely well done. The chapping of the lips and mouths, dark eyes, and sunken faces from the exposure to these extreme temperatures and the hunger made an indelible impression on me. With so many aspects of the film working at such an elevated level, it’s undeniably one of the best true stories that’s been put on screen that I’ve seen in quite some time.

Final thoughts on Society of the Snow

The life-and-death conditions and starvation the survivors of the fateful Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 had to stare down is something that would make anyone consider the time they’re given on Earth a little closer. So don’t wait around for the Snow to melt this winter before you queue up and catch the utterly fantastic Society Of The Snow. 

Society of the Snow is now in theaters

Society of the Snow is now in theaters. It will stream on Netflix on January 4, 2024.  Learn more by visiting the official Netflix site for the film.

The film is a short list contender for Best International Feature at the upcoming 96th Academy Awards.

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