How’s this for a male-bonding experience: You’re trapped 2,300 feet down under the Chilean Atacama Desert with 33 sweaty men, no food … 100 degree heat—for 69 days.
Not only that, consider there’s a megalithic rock, twice the size of the Empire State Building, sitting directly over the little cave you’re hunkering in … and it’s unstable. It can start sinking at any moment and crush you like a gnat.
Twelve thousand miners die per year, we’re told. Mexican-born filmmaker Patricia Riggen shows us why mining is dangerous and makes the telling of this complicated true story of the 2010 Chilean San José Mine shaft collapse look easy. And, well … fun!
It’s tempting to think that you couldn’t go too far wrong with this particular story—it would seem to pretty much tell itself. As the old saw goes, truth is stranger than fiction, but this kind of storytelling is a logistical nightmare; there are lots of moving parts, people, heavy machinery, explosions, and potentially boring desert/mine spaces to enliven. Riggen does a bang-up job in the dramatization of it all.
Meet the Miners
Party-party! Food, dance, Spanish actors, South American music, a little mining shop-talk, plus a Chilean Elvis impersonator—one quick fiesta establishes a salt-of-the-earth cultural atmosphere, reminiscent of the happy Mexican one in Robert Redford’s “Milagro Beanfield War,” and the other happy Mexican one in “McFarland, USA.”
There’s some fun stuff while introducing the various players. Some are literal players; one miner has a mistress. His wife brings him breakfast—at the mistress’s house. Cue jealous squabbling. He says, “We have to find a solution to this.” Whereupon both women immediately proceed to slap him silly.
Meet the Mine
As the mine-bus rolls down the road that took a hundred years to excavate, spiraling six and a half football fields straight down, we get descent/temperature readings: at 1,700 feet below, it’s already 90 degrees Fahrenheit. They bottom out at 2,300 feet.
No sooner do they get to work, when aforementioned planet-sized rock crunches down just enough to seal off all escape routes and chimneys. Miner Mario (Antonio Banderas) looks up into the gloom at the monolithic tombstone, with its glittering ore deposits, and anthropomorphizes the situation with strangely stirring compassion: “That’s the heart of the mountain. She finally broke.”
The actual shift captain and safety supervisor is Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips), but in these kinds of survival situations, the natural alpha dog always emerges from the pack.
That would be this Mario, a forceful, take-charge personality who shoulders the responsibility of food rationing, looks to the mood of the men, and explains why positive thinking is the only way to make it through the massive tribulation facing them, a test of life and death.
When someone says, “It took them 100 years to dig this deep. They’ll wait three years, close the mines, and put up gravestones,” Mario says, “I choose to believe they will dig us out!”
One miner’s wife is about to have their first baby; there’s an old graybeard coming up on retirement, and Yonni (Oscar Nuñez), the slapped-silly player-man, is constantly ribbed about his wannabe-bigamist situation.
Alcoholic Darío (Juan Pablo Raba) is forced by the giant rock to go cold-turkey off booze. In his worst delirium tremens moments, he’s comforted by José (Marco Treviño), who carries a powerful Christian faith.
Elvis impersonator (Jacob Vargas) says of the only Bolivian (Tenoch Huerta), “We can always eat the Bolivian, I hear they taste like chicken.”
Meanwhile, Back on the Surface …
Well, the Chilean government can’t just twiddle its thumbs, so it sends someone from the “Ministry of Mining” (Rodrigo Santoro), which sounds like a Monty Python skit every time it gets said.
Then there’s the president (Bob Gunton) and an excavating engineer (Gabriel Byrne). There’s much speculation and shouting about logistics, drill bits, and how long they can afford to sustain the rescue effort.
Not to mention shouting at the extended miner family, who’ve gathered round to camp out and hold vigils.
Riggen Rigs It Rather Well
As mentioned, with all the moving parts, moving relatives, moving drill bits, storytelling from way down there to way up here—Riggen never loses the audience’s focus.
Down there is the deadly heat, dark, exacerbation of potential lung disease, starvation, and creeping mental derangement.
Also down there is the mother of all male bonding and personal growth opportunities. There’s a good deal of laughing—more than one would think possible. Especially fun is a hilarious dream sequence in which the starving crew members imagine their significant others, dressed coquettishly, feeding them fabulous vittles, the tableau of which is rather last-supper-ish.
Faith Shines Through
Faith in the Almighty is strong in Chile, not to mention the strong roots of ancestral shamanism, as witnessed by one classic, Bolivian bowler hat-wearing matriarchal elder, who blesses the proceedings along with the minister of mining.
The faith flowing from the family-member tent city near the mine entrance, shaman faith, faithful prayers from concerned members of the human race around the globe (due to 24/7 news media progress reports) along with Mario’s subterranean mountain of faith prevails.
What will stay with you most powerfully are the words, “God was with us,” etched by the miners on the wall as they get ready to board, one by one, the ascending capsule-on-a-pulley; a kind of moon-landing capsule-recovery, in reverse. It was certainly a moonscape, 2,300 feet down under, that these men inhabited for an unthinkable 69 days.
The miners got no compensation. The mining company got off scot-free. It’s an outrage of course. It’s also ho-hum, classic, dregs-of-humanity stuff.
But there’s a higher, truer compensation. We see the 33 real-life miners at the end, and we’re told that they “remain brothers to this day.” Ya think?
No amount of money can buy that kind of deepening of faith; the lightness after losing that much darkness, and the love and commitment of not one, or two, or three … but 33 brothers.
Director: Patricia Riggen
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, James Brolin, Lou Diamond Phillips
Running Time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 13
3 stars out of 5