Man versus the indefatigable strength of nature. Nature will win most of the time. But sometimes the human spirit prevails – for isn’t man, after all, part of nature?
Alive (1993) is a film version of Paul Piers Read’s novel recounting the experience of the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes on their way to a match in Chile on October 13th 1972. The tragedy got particular attention for how sixteen of the thirty odd survivors of the crash got through the seventy days that they were stranded in the snow – by eating the flesh of their dead.
Watching Alive is as thought provoking as it is riveting. Would one really be able to be so organised after enduring such an accident and your friends lying dead around you? What role would you assume in such a do or die situation – the saviour, the strategiser, the joker or the helpless? Would they have survived for as long had they not the bond of being in a sports team? And what extremes can the human body withstand when given no other choice?
The fact that these men are Catholic adds to both the story and the film. When considering whether to consume the flesh of their deceased relatives there is much moral deliberation. Would there have been a dilemma if this were a group of secular survivors? And regardless of your religious persuasion – or lack thereof – the sight and the idea of the group saying the rosary together night after night is beautiful.
Believing that you will never see your family and life at home again may lead you to acts of barbarity. What makes Alive so stunning are the elevated acts that occur in spite of the dire predicament: appreciating how magnificent their environment is; their jokes and sense of irony; the celebration of birthdays with snow for cake and a cigarette for candles; the desire to have another baby.
Frank Marshall’s film is refreshingly devoid of the special effects that can detach us from a film’s emotional content. The terror of those devastating set of events is made so much more real when we are not distracted by visual gimmickry. I wonder if someone were to remake the story whether they would be able to resist the pyrotechnics.
How I Ended This Summer (2010) explores human psychology under wholly different circumstances. Taking place on a remote Arctic island in the Chukchi Sea, home to the Valkarkai polar station, meteorologist Sergei and his assistant – college student Pavel. When the mainland radios in news of the death of Sergei’s wife and children, the youngster cannot bring himself to be the bearer of bad news and delays the task of telling his boss.
The two make an unlikely couple – flung together by their work but divided by the diverging mindsets of two generations that have lived through two very different periods in recent Russian history. But no allusions are made to Russia’s troubled politics and existence. This is very much a tale of people set against the staggering backdrop of a piece of the planet rarely explored in film. The pace is slo, letting us enjoy the incredible photography and ever mounting tension of Pavel’s quandary. With plenty of lingering close ups and the cast as small as it is, there isn’t anything to hide behind. Grigoriy Dobrygin is magnetic as the cute and callow Pavel – Sergei Puskepalis as Sergei making a brilliant contrast with his gruff manner and bear-like appearance.
Aleksey Popogrebski’s film made me want to run north and live a secluded life logging meterological data and fishing for arctic trout in those wild surroundings Perhaps only if I had such attractive company. He works a simple premise – dwarfed in comparison to the inconceivable events in Alive – into something unforgettable.
Chat is kept to a minimum in both films. With such scarcity of dialogue, it is the sights, sounds and stark contrasts – the indiscriminate forces of nature versus the psychological and physical survival of individuals – that do the talking. Each moment has to be considered and aesthetic if we are not distracted by banter and comedy. Both films explore man’s ability to withstand and react to the most alien conditions with little at his disposal, hemmed in by wind and granite and snow.