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AFI Fest 2015: "The 33"

The Monday gala movie for AFI Fest was "The 33," about the 33 Chilean miners trapped in a collapsed mine for 69 days. "The 33" had already opened in Chile, Colombia and Mexico in August, screened at a few U.S. festivals (Chicago International  and Miami International film festivals), but Los Angeles is one of the places the miners visited after their ordeal, the 2010 Copiapó mining accident, and the man they chose to write the official book, Héctor Tobar, won a Pulitzer Prize while writing for the Los Angeles Times.

Although other authors were quick to publish accounts, Tobar had exclusive access to the miners and wrote the official account, "Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine" and the book serves as the basis for the movie's script.

The movie first gives us an aerial view of the Atacama Desert. The beautiful beige hills are offset by bright green salt lakes. Then we come in on the mine, far away from any village and not much to look at from above, yet a whole century worth of tunnels are below. The San José Mine began in 1889 and is about 28 miles from Copiapó, the capital of the Copiapó and the Atacama region. The nation's capital of Santiago is about 500 miles away, but the Atacama Desert has a low population and as a consequence low light pollution. That along with its high altitude make it one of the best places for astronomical observations.

We first meet the miners with their families as the adults are dancing to "Jailhouse Rock" with vocals provided by their own Elvis impersonator, Edison Peña (Jacob Vargas). The children are playing soccer. The miners and their families are having a party for Mario Gomez (Gustavo Angarita), who will be retiring in two weeks after working in the mine for 45 years. We meet most of the miners including Mario "Super Mario" Sepúlveda (Antonio Banderas) and his wife Katty (Kate del Castillo), shift supervisor Luis "Don Lucho" Urzua (Lou Diamond Phillips) and young mechanic Mario Casas (Álex Vega) and his wife Jessica (Cote de Pablo) who is six months pregnant. Casas has been offered a job as a mechanic, but the pay is low compared to what can be earned as a gold miner.

On the morning of accident as the bus makes the rounds, picking up the miners, we learn that Yonni Barrios (Oscar Nuñez) has both a mistress and a wife fighting over him and Dario Segovia (Juan Pablo Raba) sleeps rough on a bench and refuses the empanadas his sister, Maria Segovia (Juliette Binoche) makes and leaves for him. Dario prefers an alcoholic's liquid diet.

When I heard about the mine collapse I thought of a narrow hole in the ground, more like what you've seen on the recent PBS "Poldark" series, but this movie, which was partially shot in real Chilean mines not far from the actual San José mine, makes clear the cave is wide enough for the rickety, rusted, faded green bus to enter. Before that bus goes down into the depths of the mine, Don Lucho complains to the management that a mirror has been found broken. The mirrors expose shifts in the walls of the mine. Yet for the management, the risk is worth taking and the miners are paid well for taking that risk. In addition, the miners' quota has been increased to 250 tons.

The miners are joined by a new member, a Bolivian, Carlos Mamani (Tenoch Huerta), through whose eyes we notice certain things on the way down. At the entry way, there's a statue of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus and a memorial for a miner who died. Carlos is told this is the only way in and the bus ride is an hour down into the mine. Inside the dark mine there are more vehicles like an excavator. Subtitles tell us that we are 2,300 feet below the surface and the temperature is 94 degrees Fahrenheit.

The sequences of the actual collapse are handled well by director Patricia Riggen, but here's where movie clichés begin to abound. You can probably guess some of the character arches already such as Dario being weaned from his alcohol addiction or there being a conflict between Super Mario and Don Lucho.

Above ground, Maria Segovia is the most vocal of the family members waiting for news and, after the management failed and the government takes an interest in the rescue attempts, she confronts Chile's Minister of Mining, Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro), who had only been in his position for four months. How she helps Laurence come up with the final solution will seem far-fetched.

The 33 miners were trapped from August 5, 2010 to October 13. Producer Mike Medavoy had lived in Chile and met the miners during their visit to Los Angeles. Most of the actors were able to meet their real-life counterparts and the miners were on the set. We also get to see the 33 miners at the end of the movie, as they are today. While there are touching moments and the director of photography Checco Varese captures both the natural beauty of the Atacama Desert as well as the grimy reality of the mines, I can't shake the feeling that this is an opportunity missed. Since we know how the story ends, the movie depends upon how the script gets us there. I haven't read Tobar's book, but too much of this journey through the mines seems like false movie gold, from some of the heavily telegraphed character development to the dialogue. Did Super Mario really look at the massive boulder blocking their way out and say, "That's not a rock. That's the heart of the mountain. She finally broke"?

I know the miners selected their official biographer and their official poet, but we don't get this either. The international cast have great resumés and one can appreciate the attempt to cast predominately Latino names, but that also makes one wonder: would the script sounded better in Spanish instead of English with Spanish words sprinkled here and there?

The screen story is credited to Oscar-nominee José Rivera ("The Motorcycle Diaries") with the actual screenplay written by Mikko Alanne, Oscar-nominee Craig Borten ("Dallas Buyers Club") and Michael Thomas. There may have been too many cooks for this empanada.

Still, the authenticity of place is what sticks with me. In that respect, "The 33" provides a visual understanding of the factors behind the working conditions, the accident and the rescue of the miners in the Copiapó mining accident.

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