In 1972, a 45-passenger plane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team crashed during a thunderstorm in the Andes, ultimately leaving 16 survivors. Their story, complete with revelations of cannibalism, was extensively chronicled in Piers Paul Read's 1974 bestseller "Alive," but there's nothing quite like hearing from the survivors firsthand.
The documentary "Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains" – a thinking person's Halloween movie – reunites many of the survivors, some of them accompanied by their children, after 35 years. The men revisit for the first time the Valley of Tears glacier where their plane crash-landed, and their words make palpable the awe and terror they experienced.
The extraordinary intimacy of the revelations owes much to the fact that the film's director, Gonzalo Arijón, was a childhood friend of the men. Arijón doesn't make the mistake of attempting to sensationalize a story that is already shocking. For 72 days the survivors held on to life by eating the flesh of friends and family who died in the crash. In interviews, some of the men, many of whom remain observant Roman Catholics, compare this act to Holy Communion.
No one is remorseful. At first you may think that their almost mystical bond with those they consumed is just a fancy form of survivors' guilt. But that's not the way it comes across. The men owe their lives to these dead, and they seem ineffably respectful of them. Can anyone who was not there truly cast stones?
Arijón takes us on the journey step by step. We learn how a radio in the wreckage, the survivors' only lifeline, broadcast that the air search was being abandoned. We hear how they felt when they realized their only hope was cannibalism. Most eloquent is "Nando" Parrado, whose mother and sister died in the crash. With another survivor, Roberto Canessa, he hiked across 44 miles of mountainous peaks until, three days before Christmas, they were spotted by an old Chilean shepherd, who remembers thinking they "smelled of the grave."
Arijón utilizes the scant recovered photographic record of the event and fills in the narrative with occasional reenactments. Although well staged, they detract from the overpowering reality of the rest of the movie.
Still, Arijón had few options under the circumstances. It's not as if the survivors were bopping about the fuselage for two months with a Panavision camera recording for posterity.
At just over two hours, "Stranded" is nonstop harrowing. It has cumulative power. Since we already know the outcome of the crash, Arijón doesn't inject into the proceedings a false note of suspense. What keeps us hooked is the spectacle of seeing and hearing men who faced death in ways few ever have. We want to know, at the deepest level, how they coped.
Thirty-five years later, in the Valley of Tears, how genuine is the beatific look on the faces of the survivors? Is this simply the way they wish to be remembered or have they indeed achieved true inner peace? There's no way to know, but if these men are acting, they deserve an ensemble Oscar. Grade: A- (Unrated.)