At the end of every calendar year come a slate of ‘Top 10,’ ‘Best Of’, ‘Star Picks’ in film, art, theater, literature…you know the drill. Last year I took note because the ‘best’ book of the year according to several sources was a non-fiction work by Héctor Tobar entitled Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free. I recall vividly the events beginning in August 2010 when 33 miners were trapped half a mile below the surface of the earth in a gold mine. That even one of them survived was beyond any of the statistics or hope. That all of them survived is a legitimate miracle. I still haven’t read the book, but fortunately now we can watch THE 33 and experience the anguish, the faith, the commitment, and the miraculous events which set them free.
THE 33 is a film with a beautifully assembled ensemble cast, although really it has two ensembles: The men trapped below the ground, and those who love them above. The 33 miners naturally fall into a hierarchy with Mario Sepúlveda (Antonio Banderas) assuming the ‘leader’ role by virtue of his charisma and infectious will to survive, and he is buoyed by his colleagues played by a stunning assembly of Latin American actors including Oscar Nuñez, Mario Casas, Juan Pablo Raba, Jacob Vargas and many more. Each miner, while struggling with his own personal demons, contributes something critical to the group’s survival. Above the surface, a transformed Juliette Binoche is María Segovia, the sister of a miner, who uses her fury to spur the government to action through the minister of mining Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro). Living at the closed gates of the mine are other siblings, wives, children and mistresses who refuse to leave.
The cheerful opening of the film quickly establishes the deep camaraderie among the miners, as well as the personal backstories of the major characters. We see clearly the conflict between the management of the mine and the workers. When the shift foreman Luis ‘Don Lucho’ Urzua (Lou Diamond Philips) informs the manager of ongoing shifting in the mine, we knew his concern would fall on deaf ears. As the crew enters the mine, drives for an hour into the very belly of the earth, it becomes a waiting game for the viewers, but in no way does that detract from how deeply we engage with the men and the dramatic tension of what is about to befall them. When the cataclysm occurs there are no words to convey the chaos and horror which was well conceived and filmed. Trapped 200 stories underground by a “rock” the size of two Empire State Buildings, it is a miracle in itself that the men did not perish. With those above unable to know if they are alive or dead, their chances of survival are non-existent.
Every stage of the ordeal is fraught with potential disaster, and death accompanies the men every second. The fire of one’s will to live is never truly known until it is tested. The miners survive for an incomprehensibly long time on only three days worth of food. When they come to the last tablespoons of food which constitutes their ‘last supper,’ the film gifts us with a scene of such indescribable beauty and love, achingly real and perfectly realized by Director Patricia Riggen, that we pray for the fortitude to watch the rest of the movie.
Each performance is notable and authentic, and each scene fully developed without yielding to one moment of maudlin emotional manipulation. There is, in fact, so much to make mention of that I lack the word count to do so to my satisfaction. However I must note how extraordinarily good Lou Diamond Philips is as Don Lucho. He embodies responsibility, fear, and the crippling guilt that comes with knowing the dangers of the mine and following orders. Philips has matured physically, which looks good on him, and he has tempered his youthful energy in a way which yields a man of depth and a worldly wisdom. This role allows him to give the best performance I have ever seen from him. Banderas too stands out and becomes Mario without a trace of his usual glamour-boy roles. To be graced with a story and a well written script which renews our ability to believe in our collective power of good, our ability to come together and persevere through desperate odds is a rare opportunity. Director Riggen has taken already valuable material and crafted a work of gravitas, beauty, and physical and emotional texture. It is a remarkable feat of film-making and a story you cannot afford to miss. THE 33 is a rare collective effort which works beautifully on every level and is a film to be emulated by all others.
(4.5 / 5)
Director: Patricia Riggen
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Lou Diamond Philips, Juliette Binoche, Oscar Nuñez, Rodrigo Santoro, Gabriel Byrne, Cote de Pablo,
Running Time: 120 minutes
THE 33 Movie Review