You can’t complain about the casting of “The 33,” the tale about the 2010 Copiapó mining accident which trapped 33 gold and copper miners 2,300 feet below the surface of the Atacama Desert for 69 days. Led by Antonio Banderas and Lou Diamond Phillips, this international cast is predominately Latino, but the main problem here is the script.
Based on the official account, “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine,” written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Héctor Tobar, formerly with the Los Angeles Times, this movie’s screen story is credited to Oscar-nominee José Rivera (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) with the actual screen play written by Mikko Alanne, Oscar nominee Craig Borten (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and Michael Thomas.
When you know the ending of the story, the movie is then about the journey. How to tell the story of the 69 days these miners survived below while their family waited and what became an international crew of rescuers worked above is a problem this script didn’t successfully resolve.
The opening sequence introduces us to the natural beauty of the Atacama Desert and the isolated area of the San José mine before giving us some rock and roll. Music is an important part of place, but in this case, the song “Jailhouse Rock,” introduces us to one of the miners, Elvis impersonator, Edison Peña (Jacob Vargas), and brings us into a retirement party for Mario Gomez (Gustavo Angarita), who has been working in the mine for 45 years and will soon retire. Mario “Super Mario” Sepúlveda (Antonio Banderas) asks shift supervisor Luis “Don Lucho” Urzua (Lou Diamond Phillips) for some extra hours and gets them. Young mechanic Mario Casas (Alex Vega) has been offered a job as a mechanic, but his wife Jessica (Cote de Pablo) is six months pregnant and the pay is low compared to what can be earned as a gold miner.
On the morning of the accident, the miners catch a rusted, faded green bus. The bus waits as Yonni Barrios (Oscar Nuñez) leaves the house of his mistress as his wife comes with his lunch packed and the women squabble. Dario Segovia (Juan Pablo Raba) pretends to sleep on a bench when his sister, Maria Segovia (Juliette Binoche) comes by selling her empanadas. She leaves two for Dario, but he doesn’t touch them, preferring to drink alcohol for his breakfast, before joining the men on the bus.
Before entering the mine Don Lucho warns the management that a mirror has been found broken. Mirrors are fixed to areas of the tunnels so that when the ground shifts, the mirror breaks. For his concern, Don Lucho and his men are punished: their daily quota is increased. Don Lucho rejoins the men, but says nothing about his concerns. A new member, Carlos Mamani (Tenoch Huerta), is the only Bolivian on the crew.
When you heard about the accident, you might have imagined the mine as a hole in the ground where men travel down via a narrow rail instead of a bus. The movie was filmed not far from the site of the mine collapse in another mine. The mine itself is wide and spacious, but dark and dusty. The actual sequence of the mine collapse is handled well by director Patricia Riggen.
The management’s lack of concern for the miners goes beyond mirrors. When the 33 make it to the refuge they soon realize that the first aid kit has not been re-stocked for years and the stock of food is not enough for them to survive even three days. Above ground the management has quickly given the men up for dead and it is the federal government represented by the young and new-to-the-job Minister of Mining, Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro), and the families that put enough pressure on the government under the vocal leadership of Maria Segovia that make plans for a rescue. Yet there are disappointments along the way until the effort goes international.
The feeling of place is the best part of this movie which soon becomes mired in movie conceits that you can see coming early on and other twists that feel contrived. You have to wonder about the kind of group that would select their official biographer and poet as well as decide to tell their story together and I wish we had seen more of this group dynamics, even if it meant listening to bad poetry. Could it have possibly been worse than Super Mario’s line describing the massive boulder that blocks their exit as “That’s not a rock. That’s the heart of the mountain. She finally broke.”
Despite the international cast, “The 33” is in English. “The 33” was released in Chile and other Latin American countries in August and was the Monday night gala at AFI FEST. It opens in the U.S. on November 13.