Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Alive posterAlive is a 1993 film based on the true story of the survivors of the crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 on October 13, 1972 in the Andes. The protagonists are the members of the Uruguayan rugby team of Stella Maris College in Montevideo and their friends and family members who have chartered the flight to Santiago, Chile, where the team is to play a match. The film is a flashback being told by John Malkovich, who is character Carlitos Paez. It begins on the airplane, as the jovial young rugby players joke around and tease the flight attendant. Their jokes soon end as the pilots, who have already notified the air controller in Santiago that they are beginning their descent, realize that they have misjudged the time required to cross a mountain pass and are heading straight for a mountain. The airplane clips a peak, losing its wing and tail, then continues sliding down a steep slope until it comes to rest in a snowbank. Of the 45 people on the plane, twelve people die in the crash or shortly thereafter, in a mess of screams, injuries, and blood. Of those still alive and minimally injured, the team's captain Antonio Balbi, medical student Roberto Canessa, and Carlitos seem to take charge, binding limbs and freeing passengers who are stuck under chairs and pieces of fuselage. The fatally injured pilot asks Canessa to find his gun so that he can commit suicide, but Canessa refuses to be a part of it, leaving the pilot to die. The dead are laid outside in the snow. As the night comes, the survivors settle down for the night, sure that the next morning they will be rescued. The first night is freezing, with the cold wind blowing into the fuselage. Despite the fact that they block the back of the fuselage with luggage to maintain heat, another five people die during the night from cold and injuries.

The next day, the survivors are suffering from altitude sickness and hunger. Antonio collects all the food on the plane, which amounts to little more than some chocolate bars and some wine, which he rations out among the remaining 28 passengers. He continues to reassure everyone that they will be found very soon. At one point, they hear a plane fly overhead, but the cloud cover prevents them from being seen. They settle in for another night. In the following days, the survivors continue consuming their rations, starving and sick. A young man who had suffered a head injury in the crash, Nando Parrado (Ethan Hawke), regains consciousness after a few days, only to discover that his mother has died and that his sister Susanna is severely injured. On the fourth night after the crash, as the survivors huddle in the fuselage, Canessa decides to give away the rest of the rations because he is convinced that they will be discovered the following day. The next morning, as Antonio goes to hand out the rations, he is enraged to discover them gone; Canessa and the rest of the team admit to having eaten them. Antonio spends his days listening to a radio that was found in the plane, listening to news of the search. The others organize an expedition to try to find the tail, where the battery for the transmitter radio is; however, they find they are too weak with hunger and altitude sickness and must return to the plane. On the ninth day, Antonio hears on the radio that the search has been called off. Nando hears the news and announces to everyone, "Good news! They've called off the search". The others, devastated, ask him why this is good news, and he replies, "Because it means that we're going to get out of here on our own". The following day, Nando's sister Susanna dies. The survivors are eating nothing and get weaker every day. Nando proposes that a team of men travel west into Chile, which must be quite near, to try to find help. When asked how he will achieve this without food, he replies that he will eat the flesh from one of the pilot's bodies. This is initially received as a joke, but as the survivors get hungrier, Nando proposes it to everyone. Some are shocked and indignant, calling it a sin against God; others argue that if at death the soul leaves the body, God will want them to eat the flesh in order to stay alive. The following day, they agree to eat the frozen flesh of the dead bodies.

A few nights later, the fuselage is hit by an avalanche, killing eight passengers, including Antonio, and burying the plane. Nando manages to dig a hole to the surface, allowing the survivors to breathe. For three days a blizzard blows, trapping them inside the plane; on the fourth, they emerge, digging out the plane and clearing it of snow and dead bodies. One of the victims is Liliana Methol, who had just decided with her husband Javier to have another child. The next day a young man whose broken legs were infected dies as well. At this point, the survivors are devoid of hope and very downhearted about their prospects of survival. Carlitos, however, has a spiritual experience, where he realizes that God is all around them, helping them; he is instrumental in raising everyone's spirits and giving them hope. Nando continues pushing for an expedition West, but Canessa insists that an expedition must wait until the spring, when it is warmer and chances of survival are much higher. Nando, Canessa, and some others do a minor expedition to try to find the plane's tail, which is successful; however, their discovery of batteries for the transmitter radio is useless because they are unable to hook the radio up. On the way back from the expedition, they are caught in a blizzard. Two more young rugby players die. Finally, on December 12, two months after the crash, Canessa, Nando, and Antonio "Tintin" Vizintin, who have been building their strength and eating much, set off on their expedition West, taking with them a pack of meat and a warm sleeping bag they have sewed together from quilts of insulation from the plane's tail which is big enough for the three of them to weather the freezing nights. Carlitos tells them at their parting that he has dreamt of the green valleys of Chile, where they are headed. The three young men trek for three days, thinking that they must be very close, but upon climbing a peak they see only mountains for what seems like forever, far from the green valleys of Chile that they expect. Devoid of hope, Canessa proposes they return to the plane, but Nando is convinced that if they send Tintin back to the plane and take his rations, they can make it to a small "Y" in the mountains which he hopes is the way out. Nando and Canessa continue for several more days and do indeed reach green valleys with lakes of unfrozen water. The final scene shows the survivors emerging from the plane upon hearing helicopters and seeing a rescue team coming their way with Nando directing them. 29 passengers have died, and 16 remain.

Several of the actors in the film are Uruguayans of European descent, but all of the main characters are American actors. The dialogue is quite North American, complete with Superman references, and the rapport between the young men appeals to that very team-oriented sports culture that Americans love. However, the magnitude of the story makes these details fade into the background. One cannot help but imagine oneself in the extreme situation faced by the survivors of the crash; the fact that they are Uruguayan becomes an irrelevant detail in the face of such a powerful feat. The plight of the team becomes a universal plight against nature which crosses all cultural and geographic boundaries; the film is a testimony to the transcendence of survival stories which make nationality dissolve and humanity the most important classification. The Andes could be any hostile, majestic mountain range, not necessarily the defining geological formations of South America.

A strongest Latin American cultural element of the film is the undeniable influence of Roman Catholicism in the plot and dialogue. In the beginning, John Malkovich's Carlitos tells of his closeness to God in the solitude, of the spiritual plane that one reaches through bodily suffering. During the freezing nights, Carlitos leads the team in praying the Rosary, which gives them hope in their most downhearted moments. Only one of the 27 survivors refuses to pray; this is Fito, who claims to be an agnostic. After the avalanche, however, he too joins the nightly prayers. Often the characters' survival is attributed to God, a God that takes care of them in the most hostile of environments. The discussion about cannibalism is essentially a discussion about whether eating a dead man is violating God's law; the consensus is that the benevolent and understanding God would want them to eat the flesh in order to glorify life by fighting for survival. The references to the Eucharist in the discussion of eating the flesh of a body are undeniable. When a young man whose legs are broken is dying from the infection, he begins to weep because of the beauty of being "so close to God". Everywhere in those blinding white peaks is the presence of God, who gives them the tools to survive, the hope to continue, and the good leadership which saves them.

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