The inevitable cinematic adaptation of the remarkable 2010 Chilean miners rescue has made its way to the big screen, and if you were expecting an uplifting tale that celebrates the triumph of the human spirit in the way only Hollywood can, that’s exactly what you’re going to get. “The 33,” stuffed to the gills with Latin American actors (and some non-Latin American actors, excuse the accents) tells this tale with all the textbook markers of a disaster film. What makes this one different is Patricia Riggen is at the helm, a rare occurrence of a woman behind the camera for a picture of this genre and budget. Her assured direction of the rote script makes “The 33” an affecting endeavor, if not entirely innovative.
“The 33” is the perfect day-after-Thanksgiving movie: a true life tale, rendered in easy, broad strokes with enough humor to lighten the proceedings and plenty of heartstring tugging to please the whole family. Based on the book “Deep Down Dark,” by Hector Tobar, the film depicts the amazing rescue of 33 Chilean miners trapped in the San Jose Mine for 69 days in 2010.
Bouncing between the underground mine and the rescue efforts above ground, Riggen has a lot of story to balance. The unfortunate sacrifice here is deep and nuanced character development. We’re introduced to our main characters at a retirement party for one of the miners, who of course has one last shift before he’s free. At this event, we discover that the gregarious Mario Sepulveda (Antonio Banderas) has a gorgeous wife (Kate del Castillo) and daughter, while Álex Vega (Mario Casas) has got a baby on the way and a desire to do something more. Further along down the road, we learn Darío (Juan Pablo Raba) is struggling with addiction and mental illness, and Yonni (Oscar Nuñez) has got his hands full juggling his wife and mistress. Only a few main characters are fleshed out, while others are afforded some traits, and still others, nothing at all. A lovely epilogue of a filmed portrait of the real miners almost seems to make all of them more real than the film itself.
But much of what “The 33” is concerned with is the inner workings and machinations of mine structures and drill bits, and just how they are going to get them out of there. This story thread is headed up by the determined young Minister of Mining, Lawrence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro), who emerges as one of the heroes of the piece. There’s also a villain who is quickly introduced and dismissed, though the effects linger. It’s capitalism, naturally, in the form of a profit-driven private mine owner, Castillo (Mario Zaragoza) who ignores safety concerns from supervisor Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips) and hasn’t even had the emergency ladders finished.
The rescue efforts don’t even get underway until a mob of wives and daughters attach themselves to the fence and start throwing rocks and blows. Juliette Binoche plays Maria, who sells empanadas by day, and whose brother Darío is trapped in the mine. She’s quirky, unabashed, and fierce, and her forthright abrasiveness spurs Golborne to push the rescue forward. There are a few moments in their interactions that feel a bit too facile and mystical to really buy such as when he gets a jolt of a inspiration while biting into an empanada. Her offbeat characterization doesn’t quite come together, but it’s far more than the other female characters are afforded, who spend the film cooking and crying in a camp that pops up outside the mine.
Riggen shows a sure hand over the cinematography, shot by Checco Varese. Soaring aerial shots of the stunning Atacama desert offer freedom before the camera plunges underground into the dark depths. In their refuge, the miners, dirty and sweaty, start to resemble the rocks and boulders around them, lit only by their headlamps and a few working lights. There’s a holy aspect to the scene in which Banderas’ Mario finally greets the first drill from above ground, showering him in divine sunlight and a dirty drill water baptism.
Despite the predictability of storytelling, “The 33” is an undeniably rousing picture. Riggen wrings tension from every moment available, and Banderas, as the de facto leader of the miners, gives a performance that is pitched somewhere between preacher and motivational speaker. His charisma is impossible to resist, even if his Mario is somewhat flawed in his flawlessness. “The 33” is exactly what you can expect or hope with this story: a tense and uplifting film that puts an unbelievable true story to celluloid. [B]