Director: Patricia Riggen
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, James Brolin, Lou Diamond Phillips, Naomi Scott, Bob Gunton, Juan Pablo Raba, Cote de Pablo, Gabriel Byrne
Runtime: 2 hrs
Rating: PG (Some Violence)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 19 November 2015
Synopsis: In 2010, the eyes of the world turned to Chile, where 33 miners had been buried alive by the catastrophic explosion and collapse of a 100-year-old gold and copper mine. Over the next 69 days, an international team worked night and day in a desperate attempt to rescue the trapped men as their families and friends, as well as millions of people globally, waited and watched anxiously for any sign of hope. But 200 stories beneath the surface, in the suffocating heat and with tensions rising, provisions—and time—were quickly running out. A story of resilience, personal transformation and triumph of the human spirit, the film takes us to the Earth’s darkest depths, revealing the psyches of the men trapped in the mine, and depicting the courage of both the miners and their families who refused to give up. Based on the gripping true story of survival—and filmed with the cooperation of the miners, their families and their rescuers—“The 33” reveals the never-before-seen actual events that unfolded, above and below ground, which became nothing less than a worldwide phenomenon.
Were it not for the fact that it actually happened and that some of us even watched it unfold live on our television screens in 2010, we probably wouldn’t believe the story of ‘The 33’. Unfolding over the course of 69 days, it charts the ordeal faced by 33 miners who were trapped 2,300 feet underground after an accident with no certain hope of survival, as well that of their family members gathered in a makeshift camp above waiting anxiously but helplessly for their return. The outcome of the remarkable rescue operation in the early hours of October 13, 2010, is widely known, so all we are left to learn and discover is the process leading up to that triumphant moment, which also explains why that is the focus of this recount.
To do that, Mexico-born but Hollywood-based director Patricia Riggen splits the action evenly between three factions – the miners, their families and the rescuers. Antonio Banderas anchors an ensemble of the former playing Mario Sepulveda, dubbed ‘Super Mario’, who in the initial days demonstrated admirable restraint and clear-headedness to emerge as their natural sparkplug and leader. It was he who assumes the duty of rationing the three days worth of food they had, and keeping his fellow comrades’ hopes up where arguably there was little.
Besides Mario, Lou Diamond Philips plays the crew’s foreman, Juan Pablo Raba is the alcoholic Dario, Jacob Vargas is the Elvis impersonator who likes to tease the only Bolivian newcomer (Tenoch Huerta) amongst them, and last but not least Oscar Nuñez is constantly teased for having a wife and a mistress who live next to each other and are constantly bickering. It would hardly be possible for Riggen or her team of screenwriters to put a face to each one of the 33, but they do a pretty admirable job humanising at least some of them for both comic relief and dramatic interest.
Given the familial links, it is not hard to see why Riggen has picked Nuñez’s wife and mistress (played by Adriana Barraza and Elizabeth De Razzo respectively), Mario’s wife (Kate del Castillo) and Dario’s sister (Juliette Binoche) to define the emotions of their family members. In particular, Binoche’s empanadas vendor Maria becomes the unofficial leader of the tent city for the families nicknamed “Camp Hope”, confronting the authorities especially in the first few days after the accident to try harder – it is she who slaps the inexperienced Minister (Rodrigo Santoro) after his feeble attempt to placate them with broad but ineffectual statements.
Notwithstanding, Santoro’s Laurence Golborne undergoes a transformation within those two months, personally overseeing and pressing ahead with the rescue efforts led by chief engineer Andre Sougarret (Gabriel Byrne). It was only after more than a month that Andre would be joined by the Americans, French and Canadians, with James Brolin’s laconic expert Jeff Hart responsible for the multinational team’s most significant breakthrough (oh yes, we mean this literally). Though it does take away from a more intimate study of the miners themselves, the multiple perspectives admittedly add richness to what is essentially a heart-tugging story, showing the challengers and pressures faced by all corners to engineer that made-for-TV moment of their emergence from the depths of the mine.
Critics will no doubt fault it for dramatizing and fictionalising some of the details, but by and large, Riggen succeeds in portraying the tension, anger, frustration, tenacity, desperation and courage displayed by each one of the various players in turn. Being able to film inside two real working mines in the same Colombian region as the San Jose one which collapsed also allows her and her cinematographer Checco Varese to imbue the images inside the shaft with a veritable sense of authenticity, recreating the sense of claustrophobia that would no doubt have added to their sense of despair.
Despite this, Riggen stumbles somewhat by miring her film in an awkward mix of accents. That is certainly inevitable in an international production like this where the bulk of the dialogue is in English, but it is a persistent distraction trying to get over the collection of Spanish accents. A fantasy sequence in which the starving miners dream that they are feasting at a banquet scored to Bellini's “Norma” is so overly theatrical it deserves to be cut, but a couple of over-the-top vignettes could also do with more subtlety and nuance. The late James Horner’s score proves too intrusive too often, trying too hard to push our buttons towards a certain note of feeling.
And yet, in spite of its flaws, it is more than likely that you will forgive these faults, for this is a movie that has its heart in the right place – if not wear it on its sleeve – and is by and large well-meaning and faithful to the source material. At least the strength of the miners, the unlikely hope of their families, and the determination of their rescuers shines through an otherwise formulaic retelling, so you’ll be hard-pressed to say that you weren’t moved, even uplifted, by this amazing real-life miracle.
(Formulaic though it may be, this recount of the ordeal faced by the various actors in the 2010 Chilean mining disaster remains harrowing, gripping and immensely uplifting)
Review by Gabriel Chong