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33, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Shows us about what we got from watching the news."
3 stars

The story of thirty-three Chilean movers trapped underground after a disastrous cave-in was one that demanded constant attention five years ago, capturing the world's horrified imagination, and it seems like making a film from these events would be a fairly sure bet. And while there are parts of "The 33" that deliver on that promise, no film is actually easy, with this one having issues turning two months of news reports into two hours of story.

It's unfair to refer to what happened in the San Jose mine as just something that appeared on the news, but that is how most of the world experienced it in 2010, recently enough that most in the audience will remember how it ends, although perhaps not a great deal of other detail. With that knowledge in place, the filmmakers need to provide more than the bare bones, either by finding some unique angle or providing you-are-there detail and immersion that no other medium can match. All too often, though, the filmmakers seem content to hit on every facet lightly rather than really focus on one. A broad overview seems like the last thing this movie needs to be.

Take, for instance, how it handles Mario SepĂșlveda, who emerges as the leader of the trapped miners, something that audiences can probably guess early because he's played by Antonio Banderas, the biggest star in the cast. He fits the part well enough, with director Patricia Riggen and a screenplay that passed through several hands checking off the appropriate boxes where he's obviously trusted and respected enough to mentor the new guy and pro-active enough to grab the dangerous job of finding a way out, but there's never quite enough detail to answer the question of "why him?", or make the scene where other miners feel he's gotten too big for his britches hit home. Banderas gets some nice-enough speeches that are genetically inspiring, but never gets to show just what it is about this guy that kept everyone together.

It's similar on the surface, where Rodrigo Santoro plays the handsome, youthful Minister of Mining. The film makes it clear that the heroic efforts he makes to rescue 33 men who are more likely than not already dead are unusual, but never dogs deep enough into his head or background to explain what's different this time. It's not that you really need a reason beyond "he's a decent human being", but what the movie suggests - he's moved by the pleas of one miner's older sister (Juliette Binoche) - feels like a cinematic shortcut, and even if it isn't invented, means that they are probably skipping a great deal of compromising and favor-trading. He gets the big eureka! moment, but that comes off a bit false as well. Again, it seems like there are a great many interesting details missing that could have added up to a fascinating story, instead of just the broad outline we already know.

At least the moments when the film must break out of the ordinary manage it. The collapse may not have quite the obvious massive budget that it might in a big summer action movie, but the filmmakers do very well in establishing this mine as massive visually as well as with dialogue and captions. The scale established in those scenes makes the actual disaster itself memorable and also persists when the two halves of the story might as well be on different planets for how isolated they are from each other. That sense of alien-ness is useful, though, for one of the more memorable shots late in the movie.

The film ends, as many based on a true story do, with "ever since", which seems a bit much considering we're talking about five years here, and that may be unfair. Give it another five or ten years, and the folks discovering it on Netflix or whatever comes after will be seeing something they only vaguely recall, if they remember it at all. It will still be kind of flat as a narrative, though, despite being a situation that should be nerve-wracking.

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originally posted: 11/16/15 16:09:43
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 AFI Film Festival For more in the 2015 AFI Film Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2015 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2015 Austin Film Festival series, click here.

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  13-Nov-2015 (PG-13)
  DVD: 16-Feb-2016

  29-Jan-2016 (12A)

  DVD: 16-Feb-2016

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