Reprinted from my Watching God blog on Patheos.
Theaters are full of secular movies where God’s name is mainly used as a curse. A few make room for some Christian movies, too—cinematic sermons made specifically to bolster belief (sometimes at the expense of the actual movie).
There’s not a lot of room left, it seems, for movies that show the sort of faith that looks familiar to most of us—a faith that’s not particularly showy or splashy or supernatural, but one that nevertheless is with us every day, even in the most horrific moments in our lives. Maybe especially in those moments.
The 33 introduces us to group of miners trapped nearly a half-mile beneath the earth’s surface. Their situation is incredibly dire: Mining is a dangerous business, and rescues are as rare as accidents are common. Early on, it feels like the mining company’s already given the trapped men up for dead. “Nobody’s going to hear us!” foreman Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips) says. “Nobody’s going to help us!”
In a fictional movie, that’d be the cue for some serious special effects. Director Michael Bay would save the miners through some spectacular explosions. Eli Roth would surely have the miners kill and eat each other. A Christian filmmaker might give the miners a mysterious tunnel to the top and, if he’s feeling particularly devout, maybe a few angels to dig it.
But The 33 is based on a true story, and this story does not allow for cannibalism or supernatural miracles. Director Patricia Riggen and the other filmmakers needed to follow, more or less, the facts. And the fact is, many of them did what many of us would do if trapped under a literal mountain: pray.
Faith isn’t the prime theme of The 33, but it undergirds much of the movie. Catholic iconography is found everywhere, it seems—totally fitting within this predominantly Catholic country. When a miner leader named Mario (Antonio Banderas) divvies up the final bits of their food, the meal takes on a Last Supper-like quality: One of the miners even envisions Mary and Jesus stopping by.
During that meal, a miner named Dario (Juan Pablo Raba) offers up a handful of cookie crumbs for the miners to share. It’s a deeply significant gesture, given that two weeks earlier, Dario ransacked the food stores and stuffed handfuls of cookies into his face. Of all the miners there in the dark, he’s the only one who felt truly lost—a selfish alcoholic with no direction or purpose.
In my Plugged In review, I draw some parallels between the mine and our concept of a hot, dark, hell—and no one feels that hell as sharply as Dario. Indeed, the mine becomes a place of torment for him, wracked by alcohol withdrawal and anguished regret.
But a miner known mainly as “the Pastor” befriends Dario and, in the midst of Dario’s torture, comes alongside him and comforts him. “We can say a prayer together, if you like,” he offers.
“I don’t know the words,” Dario says.
“God doesn’t care.”
We’ve seen sinner’s prayers in many a Christian movie, and sometimes they can feel forced and hokey. But in this context, it feels natural. It feels right.
“Lord, to whom shall we go?” Peter asked Jesus when many other disciples were turning their backs on Christ. And there, in that pit, Dario’s turn to God bears a hint of Peter’s desperation. Like Peter, there was nowhere else for Dario to turn in that darkness. Like Peter, there were just two choices left to him: A life (whatever the rest of that life might look like) of hope and redemption, or of a turn to death. When you can’t save yourself, you must look for a savior.
All the miners are, more or less, in a similar spot, relying on someone else to save them. They cannot escape the mine on their own. They must wait and hope and trust. They must have, in a very real sense, faith. And faith is a choice.
“I believe we’re going to make it out of here because I choose to believe it!” Mario thunders. “All 33 of us!” He chooses to believe in spite of the odds. In spite of the countless tons of earth above their heads. And faith is an incredibly powerful thing.
Mario and the miners weren’t waiting for a supernatural miracle—for that huge rock that blocked their way to magically vanish. But I believe their faith—in their ability to endure, the people topside and, yes, their faith in God—helped them to survive.
After 69 days, their faith was rewarded. Every one of those miners returned to the world of the living after more than two months in darkness. Before taking the strange elevator out of the mine, Mario scrawls on a wall, “God was with us.”
Faith doesn’t always move mountains. Sometimes, it’s enough for it to shed a little light inside them.