In an age of minute-by-minute global news coverage, Twitter feeds and anchors can be heard the frantic tapping of a screenwriter’s laptop keys. Five years have passed since the collapse of an Atacama Desert mine trapped 32 Chileans and one Bolivian underground for 69 days and it is perhaps surprising that the film world did not latch onto the remarkable story sooner. Like the cavernous interior of the mountain in which it takes place, Patricia Riggen’s The 33 (2015) has a number of faults but is still a compelling human drama.
Whether or not 100% true to those it depicts or dramatised to some degree for the big screen, The 33 – drawn from journalist Hector Tobar’s book Deep Down Dark – begins with a number of disappointingly formulaic character clichés. An expectant mother debates with her other half whether their child will be a boy or a girl; an old timer is congratulated for being two weeks from retirement; a man wants to work on his day off; a drunk awakes on a bench, and a rookie enters the mine for the first time. Although the events that are to transpire should be well known to any audience member the collective “Uh oh, something bad is going to happen,” realisation feels rather rote.
From glorious landscapes above ground, the action soon descends into the belly of the beast and improves thereafter; the mine collapse sequence is truly breathtaking. Thanks to headlamps the sanctuary which becomes home for the next two months/hour or so is relatively well-lit given its location 200 storeys down but the hardships are acutely felt. As may be expected, it is Antonio Banderas’ Mario who takes the bull by the horns, rationing food, maintaining order and morale amongst the group as days tick agonisingly by. The only figure to be given any real focus, even his characterisation is surface level at best. Above ground, it’s Juliette Binoche who leads the charge for justice of loved ones faced with a stonewalling mining company and authorities. In a strange turn and perhaps due to lack of material, Binoche frequently over-eggs the pudding.
Perma-tanned and with an accent that flits between South American Spanish and his native Irish, Gabriel Byrne is the man in charge of finding the needle in an haystack with the assistance of PR government man Rodrigo Santoro. The hodgepodge of an ensemble further includes Bob Gunton, inexplicably cast as Chilean president Sebastian Pinera. While all signs, and the odd TV personality, communicate in Spanish, the selection of a predominantly inglés-speaking cast and a script to match detract from the authenticity of The 33.
Perhaps required to pander to an Anglophone audience wary of subtitles, the four man team who came up with the script have left it incongruous. The 33 does rumble towards an emotional release upon its climactic conclusion however it is exactly what you would expect it to be. Audiences will be drawn in to Riggen’s film by its triumphant story more than its execution but at times like this, a reminder of humankind’s innate resilience is not a bad thing.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens