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Originally published December 4, 2008 at 3:00 PM | Page modified December 4, 2008 at 3:55 PM

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Movie review

"Stranded": The gripping true story of survival and endurance

"Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains," directed by Gonzalo Arijon, is a gripping documentary about the survivors of a famous Andes plane crash.

Special to The Seattle Times


A 1972 photo of the survivors from "Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains."

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A 1972 photo of the survivors from "Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains."

Movie review 3.5 stars

"Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains," a documentary written and directed by Gonzalo Arijon. 126 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Varsity.

Previously dramatized in "Survive!" (1976) and "Alive" (1993) — and the subject of a best-selling 1974 book — this famous true story of a snowy Andes plane crash finally gets the full documentary treatment. And it's not too late.

Miraculously, veteran documentary director Gonzalo Arijon was able to track down and talk to the 16 survivors — and then take them back to the site of the catastrophe. It helped that he was a boyhood pal of several of them.

Prominent among the 45 people who took the 1972 winter flight was a team of Uruguayan rugby players on their way to a Chilean game when they boarded the plane with friends and relatives. The average age of the players was 19; the survivors are now in their 50s.

After the plane went down, killing a dozen passengers, helicopter searches proved futile; hope of rescue dwindled and more people died in an avalanche. Then, 72 days after the crash, shortly before Christmas, two of the starving athletes ended a grueling mountain trek when they made contact with a shepherd. (For their return trip, Arijon filmed them during summer months.)

The survivors' memories of endurance, which dominate the film, are scary, detailed, sometimes inspiring. Desperately hungry (a tube of toothpaste became a dessert), stripped of social conventions and exposed to the elements, some felt a metaphysical impulse.

Never sensationalistic, Arijon is always sensitive to the deep bond that connects the survivors. He deals at length with the deadly avalanche and its impact on the team, and he doesn't shy away from the cannibalism that became necessary when the only food available was frozen human corpses.

Devout Catholics, the team members transformed this turn of events into a necessary religious ritual based on Holy Communion. "Alive," which featured American actors Ethan Hawke and John Malkovich, also touched on this aspect of the story, but more timidly, and with a squeamish hint of gallows humor.

Re-enactments are also used in "Stranded," but sparingly, to re-create several key moments that support the one-on-one interviews. Archival footage fills in the rest. While the blend of survivors and actors is mostly seamless, the archival material is sometimes shockingly threadbare.

The television clips from the early 1970s are in especially poor condition. This was an event that received worldwide attention at the time, yet the remaining footage looks like it might have been recorded a century ago.

Whatever its technical shortcomings, "Stranded" is a magnificent achievement: a true nonfiction epic that makes its predecessors seem puny. What were the Academy Awards voters thinking when they recently rejected it from this year's documentary competition?

John Hartl:

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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