425 When Eucharist becomes survival: movie characters finally tell their stories

    Cannibalism in the Andes! After a plane crash, dozens of 19-year-old soccer players were forced to survive on a glacier in the dead of winter for months—and they did so by consuming the flesh of their fallen companions. In some cases, dying team members made their friends solemnly swear that they would not hesitate to use their bodies for sustenance.
    It was horrific. It became a running joke in media.The whole idea defied sanity. The only appropriate response was to laugh at the horrific absurdity.
    But now, the soccer players finally are telling their own stories.
    In many cases, they are taking their own grown children—the same age as these men were when the plane crashed—back to the remote valley high in the Andes where it all took place and where a makeshift memorial has been built to honor the dead.
    Now, in the documentary “Stranded,” we begin to appreciate some stunning moments in the drama that we overlooked back in 1972. When rescued, the 16 young men made a pact not to publicly discuss the details of their sustenance until after they had talked privately with all families involved and with their Catholic priests. Instead, details leaked out from the rescue site—and horrific versions circled the globe.
    But, as the new film shows, there was a moment of startling grace during a press conference. Most of us completely missed it back then, but during that media madhouse of a press conference these besieged young men finally deferred to a single spokesman and this one friend began to describe Eucharist—and how their faith called them to try to preserve life, even if it meant eating human flesh.
    Even reading these words right now, the idea sounds bizarre.
    But after watching two hours of scenes with these real-life families as the now-50-something men describe the entire story of survival and rescue—when we see this final press conference, the words of the young spokesman suddenly begin to convey new truths.

    I highly recommend this documentary. There’s one short burst of R-rated language, but otherwise the film is appropriate for high school and college-age groups—the age of the soccer team that went through this experience. It’s also a great choice for small groups of adults, because the film is as much about the aging process as it is about the months of tragic events in the Andes way back in the 1970s.
    You can’t watch these fathers (and a few grandfathers among them) talking about this youthful trauma and not feel your heart swell at the transformative power of spiritual reflection.
    At slightly more than 2 hours, the film is not ideal for watching in a single group-discussion session, but a group leader easily could divide the film into several segments.

    You may recall that there were at least two earlier movies, plus a couple of short documentaries, based on individual versions of the story. The most famous was “Alive!” with Ethan Hawke back in 1993. At the time, Roger Ebert was among the many critics giving the movie mixed reviews. Ebert wrote, in part:
    There are some stories you simply can’t tell. The story of the Andes survivors may be one of them. After their plane crashed high in the mountains on a flight to Chile, they survived for most of a winter in the shell of their wrecked aircraft, living on wine, chocolate and the flesh of their dead comrades. Finally three of them set out to find help, and two finally did break through to civilization.
    Accounts of this adventure stress its religious, almost mystical nature. …
    The problem is, no movie can really encompass the sheer enormity of the experience. As subtitles tick off “Day 50” and “Day 70,” the actors in the movie continue to look amazingly healthy and well-fed. Although some despair, most remain hopeful. But what would it really be like to huddle in a wrecked aircraft for 10 weeks in freezing weather, eating human flesh? I cannot imagine, and frankly this film doesn’t much help me.
    We care about the characters while we watch the movie. But at the end it all seems elusive. The movie characters complete their dreadful ordeal, but somehow, walking out, we feel the real Andes survivors would not quite recognize themselves.

    The short response to Ebert’s review is: The real Andes survivors did not recognize themselves in “Alive”—so they all came together to help Gonzalo Arijon make “Stranded: The Andes Crash Survivors in Their Own Words.” They also have a fascinating Web site, complete with photographs and historical details.
    Their lives and even their survival in the Andes are not simply about what they ate.
    There are breathtaking moments in “Stranded,” for example, when one man describes the terror of nearly freezing to death outdoors in the snow one night, feeling as though he was drawing his final breaths in the icy darkness—when a ray of early morning sunlight broke through onto his upturned face. “The cold was extinguishing us,” he recalls. “But then the sun hit our faces. It was as if God had come to save us—offering us a new day.”
    Hearing this from a 50-something survivor, describing the experience to young adults in the family he raised, you suddenly feel the true impact of a “thank you” prayer for a new day.
    In a film full of epiphanies, one that brought tears to my own eyes was a survivor who hugs his adult daughter close to him and says with deep emotion: When the rescue finally came, “we were only 16. But today? We are 100.” Then looking into his daughter’s face: “You are a part of what blossomed.”

    Get the film. To order a copy via Amazon, click on the link—above at right.
    If you do see it—or recall the Andes story and have thoughts to share—please, we’d love to hear from you.


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