I needn't have worried. Director Patricia Riggen has shown a masterful hand in alternating the bleaker scenes with lighter stories that oftentimes elicit more about the human condition than the times that try men's souls. While some may quibble with the liberties Ms. Riggen has taken with the story, one can hardly argue with the result.
One somewhat-fanciful subplot involves Gonzalo, a frustrated chef who'd turned to mining to support his family. Faced with mutiny in the face of yet another day of dehydrated food, he breaks out his knives and hits the burners. Working day and night -- and alienating friends and family in the process -- he discovers his true self in the face of adversity and leaves us on the edge of our seats as we wonder if he could possibly succeed in his quest for that elusive third Michelin star.
Though the mature souls in the audience chafed, the teens cheered wildly when some of the men started a cappella singing groups and made it all the way to the Underground Grand Nationals. It certainly added a light note to an otherwise dark tale, but I personally could not have cared less when the Cave-in Canaries finally bested their rivals, the Slowly Asphyxiating Swingles.
Those worried that the film would be a cold-blooded study of mortality will be heartened to hear of a recurring thread where Montanares, an aloof, confident miner, ties the other thirty-two to a bed to explore the thin line between pleasure and pain. Is S&M still fun when it's a rough working man who's submissive? Don't ask: just look at the cat o'nine tails fashioned from battered workboots and the grin on Coquimbo's face.
My favorite character may also prove to be the most controversial. Valdivieso, a withdrawn bachelor from the slums of Antofagasta, barely said a word before the cave-in. In the face of death, though, he blossomed. He worked day and night chiseling out a vein of rhinestone to transform his overalls into a glamorous gown, then entertained the men at night by lipsyncing to disco classics. Sure, some stalwarts in the audience will grumble that hitting a rock can't actually sound like cowbell, but there were definitely tears in my row when the drill broke through the wall of mud and sunlight hit those sparkles. Even the most macho of the miners resisted the urge to rush out to his anxious loved ones long enough to share those final, redemptive lines of "We Are Family."
In the end, the film's brilliance is in taking what could have been a claustrophobic caveat and transforming it into a life-affirming epic. When you finally see sunlight again, the film's lessons will stay with you: family comes where you find it, real homes don't need front doors, and even when you're facing silicosis you can still be fabulous.