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Stranded

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It was one of the most astonishing news stories of the 1970s -- and eagerly devoured in full detail in Piers Paul Read's best-selling book, Alive. In 1972, a small plane carrying 45 people -- mostly members of a Uruguayan rugby team -- crashed in the Andes. Searches proved fruitless. Yet 72 days later, two filthy, exhausted skeletal men at the end of a 10-day cross-mountain trek told a shepherd that they -- and 14 others still back at the crash site -- had survived.

They had had no food, no shelter, few or no useful skills -- and the biggest mystery of their survival could not be kept secret: They had eaten the dead passengers. But many people who read Alive for its lurid taboo aspect discovered that the real fascination lay in learning not how hunger was assuaged but how a group of young, coddled men found the psychological and spiritual fortitude simply to go on in such an isolated, hopeless alternate reality.

And so it is with Gonzalo Arijon's documentary, an entirely first-person account of the crash, the time in the mountains and the eventual rescue. While the survivors -- now comfortable middle-aged men, some of whom return to the crash site with their children -- speak frankly of their decision to eat their dead comrades, it is their collective and individual ability to have survived so long in those abject conditions that is truly the unimaginable aspect of their ordeal.

This subject matter is compelling enough that one scarcely notices that the film is primarily talking-head interviews. Arijon does provide some recreations, but these often oblique and blurry sequences are shot more for artful mood. (Arijon is a childhood friend of the survivors, and both the film's respectful tone and its candor reflect the care of an intimate.) Stranded doesn't have all the details of Alive; its impact is in its deep intimacy, as the men themselves, not a narrator, laugh, cry and reflect on what most now regard as a defining privilege of their lives, not a tragedy.

The story is not without its own meager primary documentation: The survivors shot a few photos, and newsmen recorded the two "expeditionaries" at their eventual point of contact. ("They smelled of death," said the shepherd.) And no recreation, however faithful -- nor any perfect Hollywood ending -- could match the scratched, grainy black-and-white footage of the exhilarated survivors greeting their rescue helicopter. In Spanish, with subtitles. Starts Fri., Feb. 20. Harris

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