Documentary Review: Team and City struggle to overcome tragedy in “Nossa Chape”

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It’s a credit to the makers of the soccer documentary “Nossa Chape” that they’d still have a decent film, even without the tragedy that underscores the one they made.

Chapecó is a relatively small, poor city in fútbol-mad Brazil, perpetual over-achieving underdogs whom the 200,000 residents — coincidentally, not much bigger than the Odessa, Texas of “Friday Night Lights” — rally around with a devotion that knows no bounds.

Chapecoense, to use the sports metaphor, is famous for punching above its weight.

But the team and the town, indeed the entire soccer world, took one to the gut when their plane went down en route to their date with destiny, the finals of the 2016 Copa Sudamericana, to be played in Medellin, Colombia, in November of 2016. Gone in a flash was the feel-good story of South American football, most of its players, coaches, administrators and even the journalists who covered them most closely.

And what followed, as the Fox Sports documentary “Nosse Chape” (“Our Chapecó Team”) recounts, is grief interrupted by outrage, mourning curtailed because “the beautiful game” must go on.

Filmmakers Michael and Jeffrey Zimbalist have a Pele film, “Favela Rising” and “The Two Escobars” are among their collective credits, so they know the turf. Their access is broad as they take us through the the tragedy, the emotional recovery and lingering grievances of those who lost loved ones to absurd, tightwad incompetence.

We see archival footage of the happy-go-lucky squad of tightly-connected players, joshing and joking on their last hours on Earth, kidding about the cut-rate airline (LaMia) that the team hired to fly them to their deaths. We see the worldwide mourning, including a prayer from Pope Francis, about this “fairy tale with a tragic ending.” And we meet the widows and wives of those who died and the four players who survived.

It’s a little jarring to see the speed with which the administration of the team is reconstituted, the fierce announcement that “We will rise from the ashes and start again from scratch! (in Portuguese with English subtitles).” It’s what the players would have wanted, we’re assured. As if they know, as if “We Are Marshall” is the only way to come to terms with such a tragedy.

Vagner Mancini comes in as coach, new players are rounded up, and his orders are to move on, don’t dwell on the past or carry it as a burden. But good advice like that isn’t freely accepted by all, and the ups and downs of a hastily-convened recovery season add to the strain.

Players like Alan Ruschel want to get back on the field, grim prognoses from doctors be damned. But when the reconstituted team doesn’t have that old magic, the grief moves back to the fore.

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I like the way the Zimbalists keep the events here at enough distance so that we can see ourselves in this obsessive sports-uber-alles mindset that the city’s leaders buy into. It matters because of how we see ourselves, how our self-worth becomes tied up in that favorite team. “Underdog” towns and teams have this the worst. Rushing to get a squad together mere weeks after the crash, on the pitch less than six months later, when the city and team can’t even figure out how to memorialize the fallen or pay for a statue to them, is a head-slapper.

And I love the way the film doesn’t dodge the scandal of the crash, an airline cutting corners on safety (the damned plane ran out of gas, and the crew let it happen), a sports team that has to use them because of its own expenses. The most chilling moments in the movie might be when the team administration is grousing about flight options for a return to Medellin, and how much they must spend on the least unsettling option.

The most moving moments are when those survivors revisit the crash site, meet the first responders, doctors and others who saved them.

Sports documentaries, even ones built around tragedy, have a “highlight reel” element to them, and “Nossa Chape” doesn’t escape that. But it’s an eye-opening tribute to a story that, like the sport itself, the rest of the world was a lot more riveted by, as it happened, than we were in the U.S.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, accident imagery, profanity

Cast: Neto, Jakson Fullman, Alan Ruschel, Leticia Padilha, Barbara Monteiro

Credits:Written and directed by Jeffrey Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist. A Fox Sports Films release.

Running time: 1:41

 

 

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