6 out of 10
The 33 Cast:
Antonio Banderas as Mario Sepúlveda
Directed by Patricia Riggen
Mining has been going on for so long in Chile it’s passed simple vocation and become a generational avocation – the work of a man’s father’s father’s father – which also means a fair share of tragedy has taken place. Some of that is incredibly low pay for dangerous work, some of it is a general lack of interest or care from mining authorities, but most of it comes from unpredictable and unavoidable catastrophe’ like the 2010 cave-in which trapped 33 miners for three months.
The confluence of events – working class miners struggling together to survive against the elements, the political class trying to save them amid elitist constraints – makes the idea of translating the story to film easy to understand. The fact that the miners were rescued gives it an inspirational heft which lifts the idea from appealing to irresistible. The draw of inspirational cinema is its ability to connect the audience with its drama through the shared milieu of life.
At its best, it enlarges our view of the world and humanity and reminds us of our true place in it. The vast breadth of characters affected by the incident – led by Antonio Banderas’ grizzled veteran who refuses to give up hope of rescue and Rodrigo Santoro’s earnest government minister – offers an almost unlimited combination of character types to play against one another. Director Patricia Riggen wisely chooses to zoom in on just a few characters, differentiating them from each other via a handful of quickly understood character types.
Focusing on events in a frequently unnoticed part of the Western cultural landscape, The 33, which was filmed on location in Chile and Colombia, brings out a look at life in Latin America which Hollywood doesn’t often bother with, both the good and the bad. When the miners are forced to flee an avalanche of rock as the mine collapses inwards (the strongest sequence in the film), they take shelter in a small redoubt their corrupt bosses haven’t bothered to fully stock, leaving them at the edge of starvation with only self-control and their willingness to work together standing between them and death.
Their only hope is a determined government minister and his willingness to harness all of his countries resources to manage the impossible and drill a rescue shaft before they run out of food or air. It’s at that point that The 33 kicks into gear but also when it begins to come off the rails as it gives into the dark side of the inspirational tale, morphing into a vehicle for easy sentimentality which trivializes its subject matter and loses the essential elements of drama in a quest for visceral engagement.
Moving away from the miners keeps them from ever transcending the brief descriptors they were originally given – a character from Bolivia never expands beyond being ‘The Bolivian’ – while moving the plot towards the actual rescue effort. While this creates a timeline for the plot to follow, as opposed to the endless underground waiting which could be illuminating for character but a difficult slog for audiences, it also offers the temptation to follow the inspirational film playbook to a tee.
It turns out to be an irresistible temptation; no matter how far from Hollywood the film may be, the reach of easy sentimentality is worldwide. As a result it becomes ultimately about its plot, about working through the motions of the rescue, rather than about its characters, which means it is ultimately free of drama.
While those elements drive the plot forward, it’s the characters who make those events interesting and without them, it becomes an empty recitation of events. Yes, it’s a difficult balance to maintain and one where the attraction is definitely for the latter due to its immediate validation, but it’s validation of the worst sort pushing filmmakers to take important, engaging subjects and reduce them to pointlessness.