Society of the Snow: survival thriller is a compassionate retelling of the Andes flight disaster story

J.A. Bayona’s film balances dynamic moments of action from the true story of the 1972 Andes plane crash with the prolonged psychological and emotional turmoil of its survivors, who were forced to turn to cannibalism.

2 January 2024

By Maria Delgado

Society of the Snow (2023)
Sight and Sound

There is no shortage of books, films, documentaries, and TV series refashioning the story of the plane carrying the Uruguayan Old Christians Club rugby team from Montevideo to Santiago Chile which crashed in the Argentine Andes in 1972. The survivors endured the 72-day ordeal by consuming the remains of those who had perished — either in the crash or subsequently — and the public realisation that cannibalism had sustained them provided a controversial aftertaste to the heroic jubilation that initially greeted their rescue. 

J.A. Bayona’s Society of the Snow differs from Frank Marshall’s Alive (1993), drawing on Uruguayan journalist Pablo Vierci’s 2009 book, using extensive interviews with the survivors to retell the story from a perspective that melds forensic detail and metaphysical reflections. Bayona is no stranger to the disaster survival thriller having delivered The Impossible (2012), based on the experiences of a Spanish family caught up in the 2004 tsunami in Thailand with emotional weight, compassion, and a terrifying depiction of the tsunami itself. With Society of the Snow too, the spectacular sequence of the plane crash is a cinematic coup: the dynamic camerawork and evocative sound design capture the disorientating horror those onboard must have experienced as the plane breaks apart and bodies fly. 

The film’s strengths lie in balancing these breathtaking moments with the tedium and desperation of the weeks of waiting: survivors chew on shoelaces to deal with their escalating hunger, they slump against the wreckage during the bearable hours of daylight, shudder at night with cold and delirium, and gradually turn into emaciated versions of their former selves. The opening pre-crash sequences show the middle-class student life of the team, their families, and friends, whether drinking and laughing in a bar or in the throes of a rugby scrum. The focus is on the group at play, slyly demonstrating which of them best navigates teamwork and then having those skills severely tested as the survivors deal with the extreme conditions in the aftermath of the crash.  

The largely unknown Uruguayan and Argentine cast ground the film in a precise time and place in the way the English-language Alive was never able to do. Bayona eschews a single protagonist, instead providing differing viewpoints articulated by the survivors: whether it is the discreet Numa’s ethical refusal to ingest the flesh of his colleagues who have not given their permission for this act of cannibalism or Nando’s pragmatism that they eat what is available to them. It is the intricate and sometimes uncomfortable dynamics of the group, where the dead have a tangible presence, that dominate. The group of 45 who took off become 33 after the crash and then, arising from the inhumane conditions of the Andes, just 16 survivors are rescued. Working through suggestion and avoiding macabre details – flesh is stripped from the bodies off camera – Bayona emphasises the psychological and emotional struggles of the survivors as they forge their society of the snow through loss, grief, creativity, and resilience. 

 ► Society of the Snow arrives on Netflix UK 4 January. 


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