“Bigger than the game” is a phrase that gets tossed around quite often during major sporting events. The World Cup is certainly no exception, as national soccer teams, regardless of who they’re playing, have come to symbolize more than just a group of athletes. Through their resiliency in competition and the pride they instill in fandoms, sports teams are almost never just a collection of jerseys.
“Nossa Chape,” the newest documentary from “The Two Escobars” filmmakers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, recognizes this fact almost immediately. About Chapecoense, the team born from a western Brazilian city that grew to national and international prominence, the film wastes no time showing how both team and community are intertwined. It also doesn’t take long for “Nossa Chape” to detail the tragic aftermath of a plane crash that killed 71 players and club staff in a late November 2016. Rather than treat this cataclysmic event as a prolonged, delayed product of dread, the filmmakers acknowledges as early as possible that the unthinkable has happened, looking instead at what comes after something that teams, families, and the entire world still have trouble reconciling.
The most common thing that come in the wake of a tragedy like this, especially in a sports film, is a sense of resiliency and triumph. Traditional, expected sports narratives use on-field performance as a way to show a grieving community start to heal. While “Nossa Chape” has elements of that, it’s clear the Zimbalists are looking for a fuller view of how each person has their own individual way of dealing with a disaster so vast and immediate.
Rather than just present a chronological timeline of the popular and successful 2016 team and look exclusively at the players tasked with rebuilding an entire football club from nearly nothing, “Nossa Chape” considers the wives and families and surviving team members throughout the film, keeping in mind that (as some members of the managerial staff also find out) trying to wipe away a tragedy by ignoring it completely is almost always counterproductive.
The Zimbalists include game and practice footage from inside the rebuilt Chapecoense squad, but even on the soccer side of this psychological equation, the performance on the field is always balanced with an outside-the-stadium perspective. Even the most triumphant victories in the wake of the reformed team come with their own complications. Wins can only do so much to assuage the visible guilt felt by those players who weren’t on the flight and how much this new version of Chapecoense wrestles with the legacy left behind by those 71 who were.
“Nossa Chape” also isn’t blind to the more cynical responses to a collective tragedy like this one. Team officials speculate on how they can take advantage of the outpouring of support on social media. The survivors of the crash show varying levels of wariness when they’re used to introduce a brand-new jersey redesign. There’s even a peek inside a board meeting where Chapecoense officials talk frankly and openly about how they’re distributing financial compensation to the widows of players who died in the crash.
What “Nossa Chape” manages to maintain throughout is a balanced view of how competing forces are handling the near-impossible process of moving forward. Resisting a clean, tidy narrative of an entire city rallying around a resilient Chapecoense with the exact same common goal, the Zimbalists zero in on the realities of a more splintered response. Tensions flare between teammates under a new coaching regime. When the on-field performance doesn’t immediately pick up where the 2016 Chapecoense squad left off, “Nossa Chape” highlights a restless fanbase.
But in its quieter, more introspective moments, the film doesn’t linger on the tragedy itself. The crash inescapably is the force against which a cross section of Chapeco reacts, including elected officials, talk-radio hosts, and a handful of fan-club members. “Nossa Chape” is instead a chronicle of how people choose what comes next. In unguarded moments of frustration, players stall on their road to rehabilitation, whether the end goal is getting back on the pitch or simply to walk again. In addition to individual interviews, the documentary also features conversations between the wives still mourning their husbands’ passing, talking about the specific burden they carry and the ways they choose to keep their memories present.
This is not a film of weaponized grief in which manipulative moments try to draw tears in the audience. In the process, it still becomes incredibly moving, particularly when survivors of the crash get the opportunity to thank and embrace the people most responsible for them being alive. Instead, it’s s film about maintaining perspective. Even though their actions have the power to lift up the collective spirit of thousands, athletes at these vaunted levels are still human. By focusing on what binds those on the pitch and those in the bleachers, “Nossa Chape” doesn’t just wonder if some things are “bigger than the game” — it proves it.
“Nosse Chape” premieres Saturday, June 23 on FOX. The film aired in limited theatrical release earlier this month in select cities and as part of a one-day AMC screening series in cities with Major League Soccer clubs.