Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 7 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 2; Language 2; Sex /Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,
“I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the Lord rescues them from them all.
Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit,
but righteousness delivers from death.
The opening text of the film sets this Chilean true story within a larger context: “Every year 12,000 miners die in work related accidents.” Although we know through news accounts how the mine collapse in Copiapo, Chile ended, director Patricia Riggen manages to keep us in suspense throughout the long ordeal, during which it seemed at several points it would be impossible to extract the 33 miners trapped deep under the earth.
The film is not just a thrilling survival tale but also a prophetic polemic against corporate greed that places profits over the safety of its workers. As a group of miners report for work, shift foreman Luis Ursua (Lou Diamond Phillips) is concerned about the safety of the San José mine because he has discovered shards of glass from a mirror stuck in a fissure. He tells Castillo, the mine manager, that the mountain has shifted, thus breaking the mirror. It is too dangerous for the men to enter, he asserts. Castillo refuses to shut down the operations, so the worried Luis and his crewmen ride in their bus deep into the bowels of the earth.
They are not long into their workday when the mountain shifts again, dirt and rocks cascading down. The men rush for the chamber known as The Refuge where supposedly there is safety and ample food and water. There are supplies, but only for a few days. Further neglect is revealed when a couple of the miners, climbing up two shafts intended as escape routes, discover that the company did not install the ladders all the way to the top. However, they also see that the shafts are blocked anyway. Above ground Castillo orders the gates closed and orders that no one is allowed to leave. However, two miners manage to drive through the gate before it is closed, and soon the wives, mothers, and other relatives have rushed from their homes to the fence seeking information about loved ones. They are ignored at first, while inside the consensus of the mine officials is that the trapped miners are so deep down that nothing can be done. Almost 500 miles away in the capital Santiago the newly appointed Minister of Mines Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro) is told this over the phone. Surprised at the willingness to write-off the miners, he disagrees. When they will not heed his pleas he persuades President Pinera (Bob Gunton) to intervene, and an ace engineer soon arrives at the mine with drilling equipment. Below ground the mood of the miners varies, rising at first when they manage to get the lights turned back on, and also when they hear the sound of drilling. However, as the days drag on and they subsist on their tiny rations, quarrels break out, the men even turning on Luis at one time. Mario Sepúlveda (Antonio Banderas), who works extra gifts to support himself and his wife, also has emerged as a leader, at one point talking a despairing man out of committing suicide. Thus the miners alternate between comraderie and conflict, too many hours filled with complaining, bickering, and accusations. Both the rescue operation and the relationship among the men become more complicated as one day follows another. There is rejoicing when the men hear the drill approaching them, but then it bypasses them, the cheering coming to a halt. Later, when there is a breakthrough and a TV camera and food are lowered, there follows more crises, each one at first seemingly unsolvable. Thus the film becomes a tribute both to the persistence and resourcefulness of the characters, above and below ground. There are also moments of levity, some of them involving the wife of one of the miners and his mistress, both of whom are watching through the fence and staying at the camp set up for the relatives. At the camp there is even an Elvis impersonator. Minister of Mines Laurence Golborne has his hands full placating the onlookers, justifiably upset by the company’s callous treatment of them. Maria (Juliet Binoche), the woman who first slapped him because she thought he was also dealing with them insincerely changes as he tries to reassure the group throughout the many crises caused by the breakdown of machinery.
The film is a powerful testimonial to the human spirit, and yet also it refuses to romanticize the trapped men, revealing instead their many failures due to human weakness. It also shows the importance of religious faith for keeping despair at bay. The miners’ last supper at which they eat the remainder of their meager rations will remind believers of a more famous Last Supper. The “elements,” a dab of tuna fish mixed with water a small portion of milk pouref into 33 cups, are not much larger than those of the Communion service. Also, the food launches the group’s imagination, the miners” experiencing” a joyful feast at which there is an unlimited supply of favorite dishes.
Although it is impossible to tell the stories of all 33, the filmmakers do a pretty good job of letting us see a number of them as the irreplaceable human beings they are and not just as potential statistics of tragedy. Along with those already mentioned there are Álex Vega (Mario Casas) is considering on taking a less lucrative but safer job to please his pregnant wife Jessica and his father Don José; Darío (Juan Pablo Raba) is estranged from his sister María (Juliette Binoche) because of his alcoholism and sometimes sleeps on park benches; the oldest of the lot, Mario Gomez (Gustavo Angarita), having toiled in the mine for 45 years had planned to retire in two weeks; Yonni (Oscar Nunez) regales his fellow miners with tales of his numerous romances; Bolivian newcomer (Tenoch Huerta), treated as an outsider; and the religious José (Marco Trevino) serves as a pastor for the men when they are below ground.
To return to the larger context mentioned at the beginning of this review, the film informs us that the mine owners, so concerned for profits that they had neglected safety measures because of their cost, get off free of any charges of criminal neglect. It seems that ours is still a world that needs its prophets to go after those who put profits before people. The good part of the report is that the miners have stayed in touch as friends.
This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the Jan. 2016 issue of VP, available for purchase on this site.