The 33

REVIEWED BY SARAH CULLEN

The 33 opens with the statistic that 12,000 individuals die each year in mining accidents, followed quickly by stunning wide pans of the Atacama Desert. The hills of almost unbroken – save for a solitary winding road - orange sand are both beautiful and foreboding; reminding the audience that there are still wide expanses of the earth where human habitation is precarious business. The events of The 33 are thus presented to the viewer as a tiny slice of a much bigger picture.  

Indeed, one of The 33’s strength’s is cinematographer Checco Varese’s ability to convey the almost impossible challenges that the miners face, not only during the collapse of the mine but in their regular routine. The disturbing reality is that what these ordinary men go through daily is more terrifying than what most of us will go through in our whole lives. We observe this through the incredible shots of the almost impossibly giant yet stiflingly claustrophobic underground labyrinth in which the miners spend the majority of their working lives.

Directed by Patricia Riggen, The 33 is based on the Chilean mine collapse of 2010, in which thirty-three miners endured 69 days underground before being rescued thanks to the efforts of both the Chilean government and international operations. The 33 focuses on the efforts below ground and above, illustrating how both were instrumental in the group’s survival. Below ground the focus is on the group-appointed leader of the miners, Mario Sepúlveda (Antonio Banderas), who implemented food rationing and maintained good relations amongst the men. Above, it looks at how the families of the trapped men, led by Maria Segovia (Juliette Binoche), led to the intervention of the Chilean government (represented here by Rodrigo Santoro’s Minister Laurence Galbourne) and ultimately to the international rescue effort.

The 33 certainly doesn’t shy away from cliché. Characters cleave more or less to their stereotypes and stay there; Banderas’s Sepúlveda announces early on that “I believe we’ll make it out of here because I choose to believe it!” Playing out like a rather grimy perfume ad, there isn’t a trace of irony or cynicism to be found. However, ultimately it may be the film’s earnestness that is its saving grace; this is, after all, a story of brotherhood in its purest form. It also means, however, that some of the film’s complexity is lost along the way. The lone Bolivian (Tenoch Huerta) outsider’s story gets shunted to one side, perhaps because there is no simple way of resolving hundreds of years of racial tension in a few minutes. It also means the reality that, five years on, the thirty-three men have still not received any financial aid from the Chilean government is referred to only in a coda. An admittedly rather poignant and well-made coda, but a coda nonetheless.

There is much to like about The 33. The film succeeds in keeping the tension up throughout, despite the fact that the majority of the audience will go in knowing the outcome of the ordeal. Although the action set piece which puts the rest of the film in motion would not be out of place in a Roland Emmerich film the tropes of leaving no man behind have a certain resonance they don’t have in many films. There is also a nice little extended hallucination scene in which the miners imagine they are sitting down to a veritable banquet for their Last Supper. It doesn’t exactly push the boat out in terms of experimental cinema, but it’s good to see Riggen is not afraid to play around with conventions.

There is the question of whether The 33 should have been filmed in English, when the majority of the characters are Chilean. Sad as it may be, what with the current furore around representation (and lack thereof) surrounding the Oscars, perhaps we should just be grateful that films like The 33 are getting made, and leave the issue of language for another day.

Yes, The 33 does not avoid the pitfalls of the modern disaster movie, and it can be a little too quaint at times. But for all its real-life credentials, The 33 plays out as a more likeable version of The Martian: it has the same story beats but with more heart and a less egregious (thought still disappointing) use of a Eureka moment. At a time when we’re learning that the poorest 50% of the world’s population earn less than 1% of the wealth, it is perhaps important that we are reminded of the terrible lengths people are forced to go to earn their paltry wages.