Nearly a billion people watched the live news feed as the 33 men slowly emerged, one by one, from the chamber that had held them 200 stories below the earth. It was October 2010, and for the previous 69 days much of the world had been captivated by the ongoing efforts to rescue these miners from the depths of the collapsed San José mine near Copiapo, Chile. Although there had been notes and video communications with the men after it was learned they were alive, no one could be certain that any of the men would make it out, and those awaiting their loved ones on the surface still knew little of what the men had endured together.
Five years later, we have a fuller picture of their suffering—the hunger, high temperatures, the fear of death—but also of the hope and camaraderie that existed within that darkness, that time of waiting. This lesser-seen story is one that is movingly captured in the new film The 33, directed by Patricia Riggen. Filmed on location in two Colombian mines and in the Atacama Desert in Chile, it depicts the struggles of the families above ground, but even more poignantly depicts the journey of the men who were trapped below, both by their circumstances and by their own failings.
The story at its core is one of hope, forgiveness and community, and so, although the entire world knows how it will end, it is these personal encounters and relationships that maintain the dramatic tension necessary to carry viewers through to the end. Their rescue depends on the tools and the persistence of those on the surface, but their true survival depends on their interactions in the mine: “If we can be good to each other, we might find a way out of here,” says one miner.
Depictions of the miners’ faith lives are plentiful in the film, but not overbearing. The men make the Sign of the Cross as they pass a statue of Our Lady when entering the mine; they pray together in stressful moments. But the film generally resists overly pious platitudes and avoids the use of faith purely as a narrative tool. The men in the mine are men of faith in real life, and so the film simply works to demonstrate this, with powerful results.
In one scene, the men have had no sign that they might be rescued and are down to the last of their food: a single can of tuna fish to be split 33 ways. Each is given a few spoonfuls of a watered-down mixture. As the final bites are taken, each man imagines the meal he wishes he had, the person he wishes was bringing it to him—all of them knowing that this may indeed be their last supper together, all of them still holding out hope that this suffering might be taken away. Then, in a moment reminiscent of “Sullivan’s Travels,” the men find a reason to laugh even in this desperate situation.
No individual or corporation was ever held accountable for the collapse of the mine, and the men have since returned to their regular routines—for the most part. In October, on the fifth anniversary of their rescue, the 33 traveled to Rome and were greeted and blessed by Pope Francis during a general audience. The men presented him with a miner helmet covered in signatures. “I think any one of them could share with us what the meaning of hope really is,” Pope Francis said during the audience. “Thank you for having hope in God.”
In a strange way, the film is a perfect one to watch as the Advent season begins. In one of the film’s final scenes, the last man to leave the mine pauses in the darkness before he climbs into the cage that will carry him out. He takes a moment to consider a message the men have carved into the wall of the mine: “God was with us.” Even as the mine collapsed around them. Even in those darkest moments. Even as they fought and starved and prayed and forgave one another.
It is a sentiment that Pope Francis echoed in another papal audience, reminding us that, wherever we go, Christ is always there first: “When we arrive, he is there waiting,” Francis said. Of course, this is not always easy to remember, and even when we know it, often difficult to recognize.
In trying times, it is not always easy to feel or find God’s presence. Jesus’ own disciples struggled to recognize the risen Jesus: On the road to Emmaus, Jesus arrives in the midst of daily life and walks alongside the disciples as they are “conversing and debating.” He stays with them and urges them forward, even though they cannot yet understand. His presence on that road reminds us that, all too often, that which we are searching for is beside us all along. If only we could recognize that burning in our hearts for what it is and follow it.