The Bible tells us hell is filled with “unquenchable fires,” where a rich man begged for just a fingertip of water to cool his tongue. John Milton described it like this: “As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames/No light; but rather darkness visible.” Dante depicted it as nine circles, spiraling to the very center of the earth. Writers, artists and moviemakers always add their own spin to what is sometimes called Hades or the underworld, but a few things remain constant: darkness, heat, torment, despair.
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” Dante wrote. Once hell’s brazen doors shut, he was convinced, there is no escape.
The San José mine, located in Chile’s barren Atacama Desert, had been operational for more than a century. For decades, miners plunged into the mountain’s dark wound, pulling gold and copper from its bowels and carrying their treasure to the sunlit world above. Year after year, they dug deeper and deeper, tunneling ever closer to the world’s molten core, the temperature rising with each new foot. At the mine’s Refuge—an emergency safe house of sorts 2,300 feet down—the temperature holds steady at 94 degrees.
To mine this mountain is dangerous work. Accidents happen. Miners die. But it’s good work, too—stable, reliable, capable of supporting wives and families. Miners know the dangers, but they are comforted by the safeguards: ladders in the ventilation chimneys, emergency intercoms, mirrors placed in critical seams as an early warning system for when the mine might shrug its shoulders.
But when Luis Urzua, a foreman, finds broken mirrors on the dark floor, management sees little reason to shut the place down—not with every delay cutting into the bottom line. It’s an old mine, Luis is told. It’s bound to shift a little.
And so it does. On August 5, 2010, the mine shifts … and collapses. Luis and 32 other miners are stranded. The ladders to the surface only go part-way up, they find; the company hadn’t bothered to finish them. When someone tries to use the intercom, they discover its wires have been either cannibalized or were never hooked up in the first place. The road they came in through—the road to the surface—is barred by a rock twice the mass of the Empire State Building.
“That’s not a rock,” Mario, one of the miners, says. “That’s the heart of the mountain. It finally broke.”
The mining company is prepared to write the miners off as an occupational tragedy. Even if they are alive, after all, they’ll soon be dead. They only have enough food and water for three days. Hunger, thirst and heat will take their toll. The mine’s manager knows the score. He’s been a miner for 25 years. He’s seen five cave-ins. “You know how many men we saved?” he asks a government official. “No one!”
But the San Jose mine is not a supernatural pit guarded by Cerberus. It has no eternally burning lake of fire. It is merely a mine. And hope, above and below, has not yet been abandoned.
“I believe we’re going to make it out of here because I choose to believe it!” Mario tells his fellows. “All of us!” He doesn’t just talk a good game, either. Becoming the group’s unofficial leader, Mario rations food. He inspires his mine-mates. As the days stretch out into weeks, he works hard to keep his weakened friends alive.
Indeed, the miners survive for 16 days without any outside support. Then another 53 days go by before they’re reunited with their families. They, naturally, get on one another’s frayed nerves. Sometimes, it seems, they’re ready to kill or be killed. And yet they don’t: They survive their time together, offering courage constantly and forgiveness when necessary.
The story of The 33—based on real-life events—is one of embracing hope in the most trying of circumstances. When it seems as though company officials plan to just let the miners die, their families refuse to let them, camping out in front of the fenced-off mine and demanding action. When the government steps in, it’s the unflagging efforts of Laurence Golborne, the administration’s Minister of Mining, who launches and perpetuates rescue operations, even when all reasonable hope is gone. (He also sets up a commissary and temporary school for the waiting families.) You get the sense that folks topside are practically willing these miners back to the surface—and that without their hope and devotion, this story would’ve had a much darker conclusion.
We learn that Dario’s sister—who mostly raised him—deserted him when he was still a boy. (The positive thing here is that she’s been trying to make amends ever since.)
The men lean on other sources of strength, too. “God was with us,” one of the 33 writes on a wall of the mine, and it’s certainly not hard to see the influence of the Almighty here.
Chile is a predominantly Catholic country, and we see evidence of that everywhere—from crucifixes hanging from rearview mirrors to a small statue of Mary and Jesus placed at the mine’s entrance. There’s a religious procession during the topside vigil, complete with candles, icons and prayer beads. Many of the miners pray in both good times and bad.
And then there’s one special interaction to make special note of. Among the miners trapped is a fellow called “The Pastor.” He befriends Dario, a sullen, unpopular drunkard who, after the cave-in, rifles through the food and starts stuffing his face with cookies. Later, deprived of his booze, Dario rolls on the ground, crying out in both physical pain (due to withdrawal) and emotional anguish (due to his poor life choices). The Pastor sidles up beside the man and tries to comfort him, and Dario is mystified as to why the man doesn’t hate him like everybody else does. “Hate is for children,” The Pastor says, and he offers to pray with Dario.
“I don’t know the words,” Dario says.
“God doesn’t care,” The Pastor says.
There, in the darkness, Dario confesses his sins and begins his long trip toward redemption. And when the miners share what may be their (symbolically significant) last supper, Dario apologizes for his behavior and offers up a handful of crumbled cookies he’s saved. It is, under the circumstances, a truly sacrificial gift.
When the miners are on the brink of rescue and Dario wonders what to do when he once again sees his estranged sister, Mario offers advice: “You forgive her for everything she’s ever done, and you pray to God that she forgives you. Family is all we have.”
Someone who still worships the region’s tribal gods gives one of the rescuers an animistic blessing.
One of the miners has a wife and a mistress. The two women know each other and sometimes get in slap-happy, hair-pulling fights. They hug, though, when they realize that their shared man is alive. (Note that the wife ultimately leaves her husband, and the miner reunites only with his mistress.)
Mario compliments his wife’s backside, hugging her and caressing her. Couples kiss. There are references to pornographic magazines. Women, both real and imagined, sometimes wear outfits that reveal cleavage.
The cave-in scene is harrowing to watch; it’s a miracle no one was killed. Two men are nearly blasted into a pit that surely would’ve meant death. (One pulls the other up.) Miners deal with rocks coming down around them. Trucks full of miners crash into walls that weren’t there before. An older miner is covered in debris, bleeding from various cuts and scrapes on his face.
One man contemplates suicide, but he’s convinced to live for the sake of his wife and daughter. Another, holding a knife, darkly insinuates that Mario should kill him for food. Mario flatly refuses, saying no one’s going to eat anyone while he’s around. Two miners get into a fight over an iPod, with one nearly slashing the throat of the other. (We see a little blood.)
Dario’s sister hits a security guard in the head with a rock and slaps the Ministry of Mining in the face. Women slap and pull hair.
Seven or eight s-words. Also a smattering of “a–,” “b–ch,” “h—” and “d–n.” God’s name is misused two or three times, once with “d–n.”
As mentioned, Dario has a drinking problem. He carries a small bottle of booze with him wherever he goes, including into the mine. When it’s emptied, he throws it against a rock wall, shattering the flask. (He later seems to suffer withdrawal symptoms.) Before going down into the mine, the miners have a large dinner party where wine and beer are served. An old man smokes a cigarette.
One woman pulls another’s pants down.
In 2010, for a total of 69 days The 33 (as they came to be called) were trapped underground as Chile’s government and a bevy of experts tried desperately to rescue them. Even though 12,000 miners die in accidents every year (according to a slide at the beginning of the movie), these 33 who lived captured the attention of the world.
Bolstered by strong performances and a compelling narrative, The 33 does the original true story justice. It gives moviegoers a hint of the desperation the miners must’ve felt, and it pays well-deserved attention to the folks above and below ground who refused to give in to despair.
One of these miners has a mistress. Most of them swear. But they also pray. As I watched them cry out to God, I was struck by how realistic it all seemed, and how antithetical it was to so many other strangely faith-averse disaster flicks. In life-or-death situations, people pray. Even when they’re not particularly full of faith, they pray. And not only do these miners (and their families) lean on God throughout their ordeal, some are truly changed by Him, too. (And while the movie only gives us hints at that, according to Miracle in the Mine, written by “The Pastor” José Henriquez, 22 men gave their lives to Christ during those 69 days.)
The fact that all 33 miners made it out of the mine is something of a miracle. And this movie doesn’t try to deny that God was a part of it.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.