AFI FEST 2023 REVIEW! People love a good survival story. The story screenwriters J.A. Bayona, Nicolás Casariego, Jaime Marques, and Pablo Vierci tell in the brutally uncompromising Society of the Snow has been told before, most notably in Frank Marshall’s Alive. What makes director Bayona’s near-masterpiece stand out is that it assumes the POV of the survivors, thrusting the audience deep into a brutal ordeal; this is about as agonizingly close to actually being trapped in a remote freezing landscape as it gets. And yet, hope, kindness, and perseverance propel our heroes through the most monstrous mental and physical trials. When it comes to survival tales, this sets a standard that’ll be difficult to top.
The plot is straightforward: a team of high school rugby players crashes in the Andes. Those who survive quickly realize they are surrounded by the harshest environment known to man. There’s a complete lack of food. The blinding, blistering sun is interrupted by deadly snowstorms. Realizing they only have each other to depend on, our heroes – including narrator Numa (Enzo Vogrincic) – form the titular “society.” Frozen limbs, malnutrition, death, and cannibalism soon follow.
Yes, a meaty chunk (sorry) of Society of the Snow is devoted to the psychological implications of consuming human flesh in such dire circumstances. Do you stand by your morals and perish? Or continue to live, having sacrificed your most basic values? Bayona and his devoted team keep things classy, showing how tremendously difficult these choices must have been for the real-life survivors while never resorting to gratuity. The freedom of the ones who were lucky enough to attain it would forever be tarnished not just by the memories of their best friends dying but by the texture and taste of their flesh.
“…a team of high school rugby players crashes in the Andes.”
The audience is right there with the young men and women from the minute the 40-passenger airplane starts to plummet. The sequence is one of cinema’s most visceral airplane crashes and demands to be experienced on the big screen. What follows is grueling, to say the least, as the protagonists surrender to the elements, one by one, the impact of their tribulations complemented by Michael Giacchino’s lyrical score, perhaps the best of his astounding career. The writers have dedicated over a decade to researching every detail, interviewing every survivor, and ensuring they get things right.
This results in Society of the Snow being repetitive. Characters struggle to walk uphill, are smudged together, and whisper heartrending words as they pass away over and over. But that’s the point. There’s no shying away from just how desperate the situation was, which makes the resilience on display that much more impressive. If I were to nitpick, the scenes involving a makeshift radio feel a bit forced, considering the overall verisimilitude on display: its transmitting of crucial information serves the plot a little too neatly. This is but a minor snag in an otherwise breathlessly realistic account.
Hiring newcomers plays to the film’s advantage. Without distracting star power in the way, the director creates an instant connection between the audience and the characters. (It’s nigh-impossible to picture Timothée Chalamet joining this clan. Plus, insurance costs were cut down significantly.) Bayona coaxes uniformly excellent performances from a large cast, the standouts being Vogrincic and Agustín Pardella as Nando.
Society of the Snow contains all the thrills and masterclass filmmaking cinephiles expect in a great survival drama. But it’s the simple yet profound message – that we are all people, our lives are ephemeral, we depend on each other, we must be kind and ethical to each other – that resonates the most. The world seems to have forgotten about humanity. Now is the time for stark reminders.
Society of the Snow screened at the 2023 AFI Fest.
"…contains all the thrills and masterclass filmmaking audiences expect in a great survival drama."