Lawrence Toppman

‘The 33’ offers a warmhearted take on a famed disaster

Antonio Banderas as Mario Sepúlveda in the true-life drama “The 33.”
Antonio Banderas as Mario Sepúlveda in the true-life drama “The 33.” Warner Bros. Pictures

“The 33” recalls the perils and heroism of the famous Chilean mine cave-in of 2010 with dignity, restraint and strong, conventional emotions. Director Patricia Riggen means to inspire and reassure us with this story of 33 men trapped 20 stories below the Earth, not to surprise us.

From the first scene at a village fiesta to the final triumph, she has made an old-fashioned film about brotherhood. “Old-fashioned” remains mainly a compliment here; it refers to efficient storytelling, a victory of some kind for each character (except one minor player), and English-language stars who put on accents with mixed success to play South Americans.

Antonio Banderas gives the most varied and memorable performance as Mario Sepúlveda, who rallied the spirits of 32 colleagues when the San Jose copper-gold mine gave way. (At least, in this telling.) He distributed food equally, talked men out of suicide, became a media darling and briefly inspired his comrades’ ire, after news got out that he would write a book about the experience.

The other characters get one trait apiece. An older man gives spiritual counsel to an alcoholic; another worries that his wife and mistress are battling (or humiliating him) publicly; a third (Lou Diamond Phillips) fears he didn’t fight hard enough for mine safety after the owners ignored his warnings.

At the base camp above the trapped 33, the honorable Minister of Mining (Rodrigo Santoro) ignores the advice of Chile’s President Piñera (Bob Gunton) to write the event off as an unavoidable tragedy. An engineer (Gabriel Byrne) tries to drill down to the men but faces obstacles natural and man-made. Meanwhile, the alcoholic’s fierce sister (Juliette Binoche) keeps public awareness and outrage alive.

Neither Riggen nor her team of writers has an ounce of cynicism in them. Even the president, who worries that government intervention will be futile – and later hurt his party at the polls – finally commits money to the rescue effort. This is not a screen world in which problems large or small cannot be solved.

The film may be taken to task for accuracy; the real Piñera apparently came on board faster than his screen counterpart and undertook a program of mine reform after the rescue.

But we don’t go to movies like this for historical detail; we go to believe, once again, that human beings will overcome amazing obstacles and create a spirit of unity in the face of immediate danger. That idea – or myth, if you prefer – comes across clearly in “The 33.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘The 33’

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Juliette Binoche, Rodrigo Santoro, Lou Diamond Phillips, Gabriel Byrne.

Director: Patricia Riggen.

Length: 127 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 (a disaster sequence and some language).