Like the story it tells — one of nobility born of degradation — “Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane That Crashed in the Mountains” is an oxymoron: a docu constructed from re-enactments, talking heads and no actual footage of the story it tells, but that still packs a knock-out punch. A cinematic tour de force with strong chances for crossover theatrical success, “Stranded” is already slated for Sundance, where helmer Gonzalo Arijon’s deftly wrought tale will have audiences eating out of its hand.
Three days before Christmas 1972, a pair of Uruguayan rugby players walked out of the Andes. “They smelled of the grave,” remembers one of the Chilean shepherds who greeted them, and why not: It had been two months since a plane carrying 45 players, coaches and friends of Montevideo’s Old Christians rugby team went down in a blinding snowstorm.
Twenty-five survived the initial crash (on a Friday the 13th); eight died in an avalanche later, and one succumbed to sustained injuries. When it became known that the remaining 16 survived by eating their dead, it sensationalized what was already one of the great tales of human survival. But in Arijon’s hands, and through the reminiscences of the survivors, the so-called cannibal aspects of the story are sanctified: It was necessary, they say, and their friends would have understood. The gravity with which each of the men considers his own memories makes any titillation seem banal.
There are two photographs identified as genuine articles — one, taken aboard the plane, shows the group of blithely adolescent 19-year-olds en route to a rugby game in Chile. The other is taken from the rear of the downed aircraft — a vision of frosty, inescapable bleakness. The aptly named Valley of Tears, where the wreckage of the plane came to rest (and where it was all but invisible to rescue planes and helicopters), is a high-sided bowl of snow and ice, and while the present-day survivors recall their plight, Arijon provides a dramatization — of the trip, the crash and the subsequent battle to survive. These re-enactments manage to be moving rather than cheesy; there is no dialogue within them, and very little intimacy.
Arijon spent hours, perhaps days, with each of his subjects, who reveal not surface facts, but their deepest feelings about an experience that had to have been not only psychologically harrowing and physically torturous, but also spiritually unnerving. The act of consuming their friends’ flesh became a kind of communion, they recall (an aspect rendered far less convincingly in the 1993 feature film “Alive”).
“Stranded” was pitched at the Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in 2005, drew the cooperation of 10 broadcast entities and premiered to rousing response at the fest in a kind of homecoming. There are obvious reasons for pic’s success, not the least of which is the editing by Claudio Hughes, Samuel Lajus, Alice Larry; during a scene in which survivors recount an avalanche, there is a sequence of cuts from mute witness to mute witness, their dangling silence as deafening as what might have been heard in those snow-muted Andes.
There is much disturbing content in “Stranded,” and never is any of it handled with anything but deliberate care. The men continue to do honor to their comrades through an obvious, lingering regret about desecrating the corpses; the audience can’t help but share the sense of respect. It’s been 35 years the incident, but “Stranded” suggests the men have only just now, at the moment they appear onscreen, summoned up the courage to talk about it at all.
Production values are superb.