In The 33, Mexican director Patricia Riggen (Girl in Progress) tackles the true story of the Chilean mining disaster of 2010, in which 33 miners were trapped underground when the San José copper-gold mine in the Atacama Desert caved in. Antonio Banderas stars as ‘Super’ Mario Sepúlveda, who became the public face of the disaster.
The film divides its time between goings on underground, in which the thinly-sketched group of miners bond and bicker, and operations above ground to get them out, which are headed up by young government minister Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro) and expert Chilean engineer André Sougarret (Gabriel Byrne).
You read that correctly. Irish actor Gabriel Byrne as expert Chilean engineer André Sougarret. As you may have guessed, casting is not one of this film’s strong points. Juliette Binoche is a tremendous actress, but casting her as a Chilean empanada seller (and sister of one of the buried miners) was, I’m afraid, a mistake. The decision to film in English I suppose is understandable if the filmmakers were attempting to appeal to a mass audience, but casting European actors as Latin Americans, and getting them to do some frankly pretty fruity accents, has backfired. In the end I just felt sorry for them: good actors labouring with tricky accents through some, it has to be said, pretty generic dialogue. Bob Gunton, bless him, as former Chilean president Sebastián Piñera, can barely string a sentence together.
But more damagingly, for a film dramatising genuinely remarkable events, The 33 lacks bite. There are 33 miners in the story, so we can’t expect them all to be fully fleshed out characters, but these are paper-thin figures. Even Banderas, as the charismatic Mario, struggles to inject much life. That’s not to say he’s bad, or that there aren’t some other good performances here, but even when the delivery is good, the script itself is often bland.
Riggen’s film follows a very familiar true-life disaster story formula, but is at least fairly well staged. The initial cave-in is convincing (bar some undercooked, and unnecessary, visual effects) and the tension of the situation (at least until the final third) is maintained. There’s one hallucinatory scene where the film does manage to step away from formula, in which the starved miners dream of food being delivered, which was a surprise. I’m not really sure if that scene is good or bad, but it at least provided a glimpse of originality and humour – qualities missing from most of the rest of the runtime.
Ultimately, the film suffers for not taking any risks. The political implications of the situation and the negligence of the mining company are hinted at but whitewashed out of the narrative, leaving us with little more than a bitty and generic survival tale to hold on to. For a film largely set 2,000ft underground, it has little depth. It doesn’t help that the score, by the late James Horner, is heavy on the panpipes and light on subtlety. Horner composed some wonderful film scores in his time, but this is not one of them.
The 33 remains watchable because its heart is in the right plac e, and because despite everything it is telling us an incredible story of human strength. The film is forgettable, but the story it tells us is a touching one, and worth remembering.