‘Society of the Snow’ a fresh take on famous 1972 Andes plane crash

LOS ANGELES — When Gustavo Zerbino watched “La Sociedad de la Nieve,” the 1972 plane crash survivor felt as if he was being submerged “into boiling water,” reliving the roughly 70 days he and his teammates were stranded in the snow-covered Andes mountains.

Zerbino praised J.A. Bayona’s raw and unfiltered film, which is being released Thursday as “Society of the Snow” on Netflix in the U.S., but said he also felt the same anxieties and emotions he felt while stranded as a young athlete more than 50 years ago.

Director J. A. Bayona poses for a portrait to promote the film "Society of the Snow"
Director J. A. Bayona.Ashley Landis / AP

“Fortunately, that feeling ended in 2 1/2 hours,” he told The Associated Press this past October. (All interviews for this story were conducted in Spanish.)

Bayona’s movie is based on Pablo Vierci’s book of the same title, and follows the story of the Uruguayan Air Force plane disaster. The Old Christians rugby team was traveling with relatives and friends to Chile for a match when their plane crashed, stranding them in the mountains where they faced snow storms, avalanches and starvation, forcing them to eat the flesh of those who had died.

The tale of the tragedy has been told numerous times. It’s been referenced in shows like “Seinfeld,” dramatized in countless films like the 1993 narrative film “Alive” with Ethan Hawke, served as the subject of documentaries and plays and even inspired Showtime’s Emmy-nominated “Yellowjackets.”

“We always felt something was missing,” says Zerbino, reflecting on past projects. “‘Society of the Snow’ is the book that filled in that missing piece.”

Tackling the complex story of endurance and survival, Bayona wanted to do more than just direct a dramatic interpretation of real-life tragedy. He wanted to tell a story that honored the event’s survivors and victims and their Uruguayan culture.

“It’s more a reflection than an action book and ultimately helped me a lot in understanding the characters,” the Spanish director said of Vierci’s book. Vierci is an associate producer on the film.

Actor Enzo Vogrincic poses for a portrait to promote the film "Society of the Snow"
Actor Enzo Vogrincic.Ashley Landis / AP

Bayona, whose credits include 2018’s “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” wanted to build on the connection between the living and the dead, including a seamless on-screen homage throughout the film to those who died.

“When he showed us the drafts of what he was working on, it sent shivers down our spines; our hearts stopped. I mean, we already saw that it was very real, very powerful, and we saw that there was genius at work,” Zerbino said.

Writer Pablo Vierci poses for a portrait to promote the film "Society of the Snow"
Writer Pablo Vierci.Ashley Landis / AP

The Golden Globe-nominated film is narrated by Numa Turcatti, who died shortly before the rescue and is played here by Enzo Vogrincic. That decision was made by the director and supported by Vierci.

“I was always attracted to the possibility and the need to tell it from the point of the view of the dead,” Vierci said. “This is a story of 45 individuals providing a window through which we can observe how they endured major adversities and built a society where compassion and mercy prevailed.”

Bayona’s film seeks to honor the story and strays away from glamorizing or sensationalizing the horrors the passengers and crew members endured. Beyond speaking to the survivors, victims’ loved ones and visiting the crash site, he wove in Candombe Uruguayan music at high points of tension and added Turcatti’s favorite song from a popular Uruguayan band into one of the film’s early blissful scenes.

“I was very interested in getting into the culture of Uruguay and the culture of the time,” he said.

His approach even included crash survivors, like Carlitos Páez, who turned 19 while stranded and plays his own father in the movie.

“I wanted to get as close to reality as possible,” said Bayona, who put his cast on a medically supervised weight-loss program and shot the avalanche scenes in freezing conditions.

The film is now shortlisted for best international feature film at the 2024 Academy Awards.

When Vogrincic first heard about the project, the Uruguayan actor knew he had to be part of the story.

“From a young age, you already know about it,” the actor said. “It fills you with a sense of pride because they’re Uruguayan … but as you get deeper into the story, you realize that the story is much bigger. It talks about humanity as a whole.”

Gustavo Zerbino poses for a portrait to promote the film "Society of the Snow"
Gustavo Zerbino.Ashley Landis / AP

Zerbino watched the film with other crash survivors and victims’ family members. The end credits were met with a standing ovation, he said.

According to the former rugby player, this was the first time many victims’ relatives had engaged with retellings of the story.

“They hadn’t read or watched past books or movies around the event because they didn’t want to suffer. Some did, and others didn’t, and well, they reconciled with the story through this film,” said Zerbino who feels he made a commitment to preserve his late team members’ legacies.

Bayona’s film champions Zerbino and the other survivors’ mission: to tell the story of those who gave up their literal selves to keep their friends alive.

“I have a commitment, a commitment from before leaving the mountain to be a witness and transmit the legacy of my dead friends,” Zerbino said.