'Stranded': Whence Cometh My Help?

Stranded still

In October 1972, a plane carrying 49 passengers, many of them members of a young mens rugby team, ran into a snowstorm on its way from Uruguay to Chile and crashed in the Andes mountains. You know what happened next.

Except, of course, you probably don't know much about what happened next. I certainly didn't know how many died and how many survived. I didn't know how long they were lost or what became of them afterward. And although I could have guessed, I didnt realize the people involved were Catholics. For most of us, this tragedy, this miracle, has been reduced to a grisly horror story: the men who became cannibals in the mountains.

Now, thirty-six years later, a new documentary, clumsy titled Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains, tells the whole remarkable story -- not by rehashing exploitative media accounts, but by compiling the memories of the men who lived through it. Interviews with the survivors (in Spanish, with English subtitles) make up the narration. Their ordeal is reenacted, tastefully, in haunting footage modeled on the few ghostly photos taken after the crash and before the rescue. And the whole story is framed by a reunion of the men, now about fifty years old, who travel back to the site of the crash with their children. The structure can be confusing at first -- explanatory signposts are few -- but the result is a thoughtful, reflective film that doesn't work too hard to shape your reaction to the story.

The film (directed by Gonzalo Arijon, a childhood friend of the survivors) takes its narrative cue from the survivors themselves, all disarmingly calm as they walk us through their memories. They are past thinking they have anything to prove; by now they have told their stories many times, and they've long since made peace with the details. The weekend trip was organized by the Catholic school where many of the passengers were students. The men recall how they felt as they set off for Chile -- one was excited to see the political turmoil under President Allende firsthand. Another was happy to escape the university strikes in Uruguay. Some were giddy about their first time on an airplane, and one young man was looking forward to his first encounter with snow.

The events that follow, one disaster after another, are recounted and portrayed with sober restraint. The horror of the crash. The harsh, freezing terrain. Emerging into chest-deep snow; watching loved ones die of their wounds; dragging the bodies out so the survivors could shelter themselves in the wreckage and wait for rescue. Days passed. Helicopters whirred overhead, searching and not seeing, leaving and not returning. A radio, the survivors only link with the outside world, announced that the efforts to locate the downed plane were being called off because of inclement weather.

Each man has his own way of making sense of the ordeal, and of the fact that he survived when others did not. One half-jokingly imagines the group as guinea pigs in an experiment conceived by some dark force, a test of what would happen if young, strong men were dropped into the middle of nowhere with no resources but their own strength and intelligence. What kind of society would they form? How would they govern themselves in a world without laws, where every other consideration was supplanted by the body's most basic needs? As the days passed, "We were gradually moving away from the world we had known," one man remembers. Surveying the crash site today, the men laugh fondly as they remember eating and drinking cosmetics they found in the wreckage of the plane. But finally even that supply ran out, and only one food source was left.

Few things are as viscerally repugnant as cannibalism. It's so basically, obviously wrong that even asking why it's wrong seems slightly immoral. But Stranded quietly forces viewers to ask why. Do we automatically associate cannibalism with violence? Does admitting that circumstances matter amount to moral relativism? The young men who boarded that plane were no less repulsed by the idea than we are. But, they recall, as their food, and then their substitutes for food, ran out, and they saw each other wasting away, and they heard that the rescue efforts had stopped, they slowly started coming around to the idea. No one wanted to admit it at first. They went days without eating. They prayed for a rescue, a miracle, to save them from having to make this choice. But ultimately the choice seemed clear: eat their dead, or die themselves.

An unexpected dimension of the men's reflections is their profound respect for the dead. "I wish I could have had their permission to use their bodies," says one man. "That's what worried me." And so, as they grew desperate, the weak and starving men started to give one another permission: If I die, please use my body, they would say.

In the end, they explain, they could not choose death. One man did it for his mother, waiting for him at home: "I wasn't going to fail her." Another, defiant but not defensive, says, "I made my choice. I decided to live." And a man named Javier remembers that he held out until Marcelo, the one they all considered their captain, reminded him of Christ's gift of his body and blood. "Think of it as Holy Communion," Marcelo said.

Is this blasphemy? It can't be called theology. But who can criticize these men for taking comfort in Christ's gift of self, for offering up their suffering to Christ? Hard as it is to say that God would have wanted them to resort to cannibalism, can we instead assert that God would have wanted them to refuse? Did God want these men to die rather than defile the bodies of their dead? Did God, for that matter, want those people to die in the plane crash -- or sixteen days later, in the avalanche that claimed eight more members of the party? The suffering these men endured is so profound, so endless, so extreme that it becomes difficult to speak with any confidence at all about God and His loving providence.

And yet the survivors do talk about God. The ones who barely made it through the avalanche report strikingly similar experiences of surrender to peace and light. They talk about the ones they couldn't dig out in time as having given their lives, like Christ, so that the others might live. They remember praying and singing hymns, begging God to stop the snow that kept cascading down the mountainside toward them. They marvel at how the situation stripped away all their selfish impulses and made them function as a group, each looking out for the others. "There was no room to do something that wasn't for the general good," one man remembers. And so he set out with another man to try to make it to the other side of the mountains -- to connect with civilization, to devote all the strength they had left to the possibility of saving themselves and everyone too weak to make the trip.

One of those men recalls feeling close to God in that time of total helplessness. Weak, cold, despairing of success, he looked out over the beautiful, barren landscape and thought, "Whoever made all of this, The Creator, was my friend." We see him today, standing in the same spot, describing this profound experience to his daughter. She asks whether he has that same feeling now. No, he tells her: now he has a tent, a warm winter coat. He doesn't need God as much as he did then.

Only after the rescue efforts are set in motion do we begin to see the story through contemporary media accounts. The encounter with sensationalist newspaper headlines is a shock compared to the respectful, contemplative tone of the men's reflections. "We will bare ourselves," the survivors recall agreeing. And so the one named Carlos boldly told the press, "The day came when we had nothing left to eat, and we said that Christ, by offering his flesh and blood during the Last Supper, had shown us the way by indicating that we had to do likewise." Gathered again at the site of their rescue, the survivors and their families encircle a memorial to the dead. "My parents are still alive in you," one young man says.

An epilogue explains that the survivors still live in the neighborhood where they grew up. They are involved in charitable work dedicated to the memory of those who didn't survive. Their ordeal was the stuff of nightmares: random, cruel, demoralizing -- but they took strength from their suffering and their faith. The film's press materials, which collect interview excerpts not included in the film, allude more directly to the survivors Catholic outlook -- one man says his first act after being rescued was to confess his sins and receive absolution. Another notes that their actions were approved by the Vatican, but adds that a condemnation wouldn't have made him feel guilty. And a third draws a social-justice lesson from the ordeal: "We experience cannibalism on Earth every day, where the weak are crushed, where the race for personal interests crushes all those who happen to be in the way The complete opposite of what we experienced up there, where we all endeavored to do our utmost, for ourselves and others, even the weakest."

We may not embrace their theology, but we can draw inspiration from their faith. After 72 days looking death in the face, sixteen men reentered the world with a renewed sense of gratitude, community and mission. Stranded tells their story quietly and respectfully. It's impact is profound.

Stranded opens in New York City Wednesday, October 22, for a two-week run at Film Forum. Other dates are booked in select cities across the country through January. See the Zeitgeist Films website for a list of locations and dates.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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