Going into “The 33,” we know a few things. We know it’ll be tense, and largely subterranean. We know it’s a bad-news/good-news story, in that order, about the 2010 mine explosion and cave-in stranding 33 workers for 69 excruciating days in the depths of a gold and copper mine in Chile’s Atacama Desert.
The ordeal and eventual rescue of all 33 became the stuff of gripping reality television around the world. Mining is innately risky work, especially in mines with lousy safety records; here was a story revealing that danger, with a happy ending.
“The 33” dramatizes and largely falsifies that reality, with a frustratingly blurred sense of the conflicts below and above ground.
The film comes from the Hector Tobar nonfiction account “Deep Down Dark,” which is the best place to start with this story. The script by Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten and Michael Thomas, from a story by Jose Rivera, introduces the various miners at an outdoor retirement party. Antonio Banderas, top billed, plays Mario Sepulveda, the natural spark plug and ringleader, aka “Super Mario.” Lou Diamond Phillips, whose breakdown scene is the dramatic highlight of the picture, portrays Luis Urzua, aka “Don Lucho,” who mutters an early aside about workplace safety that comes off sounding like “Disaster Movie Omens for Dummies.”
Setting as many story lines and character arcs in motion as possible, “The 33” soon becomes a tale of two makeshift villages. After the cave-in, with the men below existing, barely, on spoonfuls of canned tuna and water, the workers’ families and supporters establish “Campamento Esperanza,” a tent city whose unofficial matriarch, aka “La Alcaldesa” or “The Mayoress,” is Maria Segovia, played by Juliette Binoche.
This brings us to the question of the primary language spoken in “The 33,” aka “English.” With the French native Binoche as an empanada seller and fiery conscience, with Irish-born Gabriel Byrne as engineer Andrew Sougarret, with Brazil’s Rodrigo Santoro as the dashing young Chilean minister of mines, finding a common language was never as crucial as finding a common performance arena for such disparately talented people. If the script weren’t so formulaic, you wouldn’t think twice about the origins of all these highly skilled actors. As is, though, the talented Mexican-born director Patricia Riggen (“Under the Same Moon,” “Girl in Progress”) is stuck with one pedestrian dramatic vignette after another. Only in a fantasy sequence, in which the starving miners dream they’re feasting at a banquet scored by Bellini’s “Norma,” can Riggen take “The 33” into an intriguing new crevice for a while.
What these men endured is remarkable, and the logistics of the rescue are remarkable as well. “The 33” settles for an unremarkable chronicle of that endurance test.
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