“I believe in miracles,” director Patricia Riggen said in her exclusive interview with me about The 33.
She was citing the low probability that the Chilean government, even with the help of the rest of the world, could locate and rescue thirty-three miners buried deep in the earth by their mine’s collapse. Covered by a rock larger than the Empire State Building, stocked with only a three-day supply of food, starved for natural light, and enduring constant, sweltering heat, the men kept each other alive with faith, prayers, and courage.
Maybe the real miracle is not that a surface drill found the proverbial needle in a haystack, but that when it did, normal human beings had banded together rather than tearing each other apart. It’s worth pointing out that Hector Tobar’s book, which was written at the same time the film was being made, reveals that the miners came from different faith traditions. There were Roman Catholics, of course, but there were also evangelicals and at least one Jehovah’s Witness.
When you are eating what you think is your last meal, it becomes a communal experience even if the cookie hasn’t been consecrated by a priest. When you cry out to God from the belly of the earth, you are less concerned with whether the man next to you is kneeling or sitting.
The biggest challenge facing Riggen, Tobar, and the screenwriters is that the story is both well-known and fairly static. The first act sets up the domestic lives of the miners—one is on the verge of retirement, one is starting a family and uncertain whether mining is the best job choice, one is scandalizing the village by balancing a wife and a mistress who are aware of each other and battle for his attention. We also get some additional conventions of the disaster genre: a manager is warned the mine is unstable but puts profit over safety; a man estranged from his sister refuses to acknowledge her and then must wonder if his rebuff will be their final meeting.
Once the film shifts to the mine itself, however, it steadily improves. (In large part, it must be said, due to Riggen’s directorial choices.) As the crew drives into the mouth of the mine we are filled with a visceral sense of dread. The detail of having the men driven down into the earth reinforces how deep they are going and how unnatural the whole experience seems. The mine’s collapse is efficiently handled without being overdone.
And then . . . well, there we are. Thirty-three men in the semi-dark. It’s not quite Lifeboat in terms of the limited space, but it is still a logistical challenge. I asked Riggen how she managed to create the world beneath the surface and keep it visually interesting, assuming that there was painstaking storyboarding involved. Instead, she said, the key was the decision to scout actual mines and film on location rather on a soundstage. She intuited—rightly, I think—that no matter how realistic the constructed sets might be, the audience would discern the difference. As the director and actors filmed for hours without easy access to their trailers, food, running water, or sunlight, they experienced a piece of what the miners experienced. As good as actors might be—and Antonio Banderas has never been better—Riggen rightly sensed that the location shoot would add a level of verisimilitude to the underground scenes that just couldn’t be simulated.
While the underground scenes are great, the surface scenes don’t quite measure up. Politicians remind one another that the whole world is watching and careers as well as lives are at stake. Family members set up a camp outside the fence surrounding the mines and hope their presence will spark sympathy and motivate their company and country to keep trying to save the miners in the face of increasingly dismal odds. These scenes are probably necessary to break up the monotony of the underground scenes, but they diffuse rather than heighten the tension. Also, while the screenplay does a good job of highlighting the most memorable characters, the cast is just so large that many of the characters blur into one another.
So I had some small complaints, but I was willing to put them aside for what the film did well. The 33 is a story built around emotion, and some key moments capture complicated emotions in a way that only a movie can. A man beats a hammer against a wall of stone, fully aware that it has taken thousands of men decades to burrow this deep into the earth. A miner shamefully takes a scrap of hoarded food from his pocket and begs forgiveness from those he can no longer stand to deceive.
And, finally, there is this. A man of faith comes across another man ready to end his own life. The man of faith has nothing to offer his suicidal companion. No food. No friends in high places. No political power or memories of success. No evidence that help is coming or that putting off his death for a day will bring anything but another twenty-four hour of pain, hunger, and fear.
The truest, most humbling faith may well be the one that not only believes in miracles, but has the courage to wait for them to come.
The 33 is rated PG-13 for an intense sequence when the mine collapses and “some” (love that MPAA metric) language. The screening I attended was specifically targeted for Christian viewers, and there were a smattering of complaints afterward about profanity. If this is a trigger area or deal-breaker for you, don’t assume that because the film is being heavily marketed towards Christians that it is devoid of profanity. Although the MPAA does not mention it, I thought there was also brief partial nudity (a woman having her skirt pulled down exposing her bare buttocks), but perhaps that scene was edited or otherwise deemed too quick to be listed. (It’s also possible that the nudity was only suggested and not actually shown.) The action sequence is relatively tame by contemporary standards. The film may in fact be more psychologically than aesthetically disturbing. There are multiple mentions of cannibalism as the miners start to starve to death, and one miner contemplates suicide. One of the miners is shown living in an open affair, and others in the community seem to side with the man’s mistress over his wife in the resulting conflict. Some Christian viewers may feel that this treatment debases marriage or excuses adultery, but my take was that the film depicted the affair without endorsing it.
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.