Sub Terra (2003)
Director: Marcelo Ferrari.
Starring: Francisco Reyes (Fernando), Paulina Gálvez (Virginia), Héctor Noguera (Luis CousiZo), Ernesto Malbran (Mister Davis), Alejandro Trejo (Eduardo), Consuelo Holzapfel (Isidora Goyenechea), Gabriela Medina (María de los Ángeles), Berta Lasala (Ana), Mariana Loyola (Mercedes), Cristián Chaparro (Baldomero Lillo), Nicolás Saavedra (Cabeza de cobre), Patricio Bunster (Jonás), Danny Foix (Pablo)
coal miners strike for better pay and conditions in 1897 Lota, Chile
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film. And there is a curse word in the summary.
1897, Lota, Chile. Here, beneath the sea, thousands of men, one generation after the next, have toiled beneath the land extracting coal for the mining company. (The mine is known as Chiflon.)
The canary dies. The call goes out: "Firedamp! Stop working!" But an explosion carries fire, coal and heat through the mine. Outside the mine, the priest rings an emergency bell shouting: "Explosion!" Everyone starts running to the mine opening. Bodies terribly burned are brought out of the mine. A miner named Eduardo Castro sees his dead miner son and crouches over the body trying to rouse him. A miner named Fernando (uncle to the dead boy) starts roughing up the father saying that he told him that the mine would be the death of the boy. Other miners pull Fernando away.
The company store clerk, Baldomero, says to the audience: "Somebody had to do something to stop this unending atrocity. Somebody had to tell the world about life underground."
The clerk at home with his wife and child writes his novel about the mine. A common funeral is held for the victims of the mine explosion. Fernando asks his younger nephew (brother to the dead boy) who is crying what's the matter. The boy says: "I'm scared, uncle. My brother looks green." Fernando comforts his sister, mother of the dead boy.
Meanwhile, a coach is hurrying to the mining company. It carries Virginia, the daughter of the previous school teacher for the community. She grew up with Fernando and had been in Spain pursuing her education. She sees the people carrying the caskets to the cemetery. She sees Fernando with his young nephew on his shoulders and says to herself: "Fernando." An old man named Jonas tells some of the other miners: "There's a barbecue Sunday at the Tavern." The men around him try to silence him with his talk of labor unionizing. Jonas calls them a bunch of sissies. But the old man stops talking when Fernando warns him that the guards are watching him.
Virginia arrives at the large mansion of the mine owners. They are her godparents, Luis and Isidora. Her godmother has to tell her that her mother has died of tuberculosis.
Luis builds a factory to bring electricity to the mine. He personally knows Thomas Edison in the United States. The actual mine operator, known as Mr. Davis, comes to speak with Luis. Luis complains of five more dead miners. Davis says it was just an accident, but Luis insists that there are far too many accidents. Luis adds: "Maybe we should close it." Davis objects and Luis says he will consider keeping it open. He then dismisses Davis. But Davis stays long enough to inform his boss that: "The miners are going to meet in Lota." They are anarchist agitators says Davis. Luis says they'll take care of the matter, but insists that Davis be prudent on the subject.
The men line up for their pay. The bosses give them reduced wages because supposedly they had wheelbarrows with too many impurities in the coal. The young miner Ramiro simply asks about the fines and is roughly treated by the guards. Speaking with Fernando, Ramiro calls the mining staff assholes and thieves. Fernando escorts Ramiro to get a drink. Along the way he grabs a big chunk of coal to give to the company store clerk. They find the clerk writing his novel. Ramiro wants to see the manuscript, but the clerk refuses. However, Fernando insists. The clerk shows it to Ramiro, but Ramiro can't read. So Fernando asks the clerk to read them part of the novel. When a foreman comes in Baldomero has to quickly hide his writings. The foreman yells at him demanding less talk and more business. So Fernando asks for a sack of flour and Ramiro asks for a large packet of yerba mate (like a tea). Since Ramiro doesn't have enough tokens to pay for the large packet, Baldomero balks at giving it to him. He says he can't sell on credit anymore because the foreman is watching too closely now. Fernando then blackmails Baldomero into giving Ramiro the packet by saying he will tell the foreman about his writings. The clerk hands over the packet begrudgingly. But when the men leave, the clerk doesn't hold any grudges and smiles.
Luis and Virginia talk together. She asks him what he thinks of her camera and he says that according to his friend Edison it is already out of date. Virginia goes through some of the old photographs of her and her mother.
Fernando and Ramiro return to a sleeping shack to go to bed. They have to roust out the sleeping men so the two can have beds to sleep in. Fernando tells Jonas that the union organizing is a waste of time. Jonas just shakes his head in disapproval.
Jonas and Ramiro go to the tavern where they are escorted to a back room. There a small group of men there discuss labor organizing. They complain about the abuses by the gringo (their name for Mr. Davis). The men start quarrelling about what they should do. Jonas tells the men they have to be united. Then suddenly Fernando bursts into the backroom. He is drunk and angry. Fernando brings his line of defeatism and the men start arguing with him. Some of the men get disgusted and leave. After a short while, everyone leaves.
Virginia's godmother asks her to teach school at the mine for the children of the miners. At first reluctant, Virginia does agree to teach temporarily until they can get a full-time teacher. Luis will get some men to fix up and clean up the old school. At school Virginia takes pictures of the children. She can't get Fernando's nephew Pablo to stay still. She asks why and learns that the poor boy has worms. The men arrive to fix up the fences around the school area. Virginia thinks Pablo is the son of Fernando, but Pablo sets her straight. She seems relieved. Virginia goes out to speak with Fernando. He doesn't recognize her. When she identifies herself he says that now she is somebody else. She 's a high class lady now that belongs to the patron. She tells him: ". . .I don't belong to anyone."
Eduardo goes to see Mr. Davis. The prostitute that Davis uses comes down to listen to the two men. Eduardo says that Ramiro is the trouble maker. Davis wants more. He wants the names of the ring leaders. Eduardo picks up his few tokens and leaves. Davis goes up to see his prostitute. She wants to leave and he wants to stop her. She asks about the necklace he promised her. She says when she sees the necklace, she'll see about them. She leaves.
The next day Davis goes down into the mine to see Ramiro. He starts berating him and banging his head into a bad post that he wants replaced. He then tells the foreman to put Ramiro in the section known as the Devil's Chiflon. After work Fernando tells Ramiro that one day Davis will pay for what he has done. Ramiro has Fernando promise that he will not tell his mother about what happened. When Ramiro has to work on Sunday he tells his mother that he is just working to fix some tools. She wants him to buy her more yerba mate, but he says he is out of tokens. After he leaves, she dips into a can and takes out the little money she has. She sneaks out of the town. We see her later drinking some yerba mate. The mining men burst into her place and start searching for the yerba mate. They were informed that she bought some mate in the town of Lota, which is strictly forbidden. Davis shows up and starts hitting her in the stomach with his cane. Fernando intervenes to stop him. He tells Davis that Baldomero sold her the mate. Davis asks Baldomero who says he gave her the mate from his own suppy of mate from home. Davis growls at Fernando and says he will pay for this. The mining bosses leave.
Down by the sea Virginia takes pictures. She suddenly hears music and almost instinctively walks toward the source of the sound. The workers are having a big picnic. They are dancing accompanied by singers and a little band. Fernando sees her coming to the picnic and he talks with her. He invites her to a drink. Fernando introduces her to his friends. Jonas asks her if she is a relative of the owner. She is not. Pablo invites his teacher to dance. Another woman invites Fernando to dance.
Ramiro works hard in the mine. There is a cave in. Fernando and Virginia dance together at the picnic. Someone comes to yell "accident at Chiflon." Everyone comes running to the mine shaft. Ramiro's mother sees her son carried out. He is dead. She looks at him for awhile and cries over his body. She then gets up and walks calmly over to an open shaft, despite the warning signs of danger. She just steps into the shaft and she is gone. The people are shocked and gather around the shaft opening. Fernando crouches over Ramiro's body. Down by the ocean Virginia comforts him. They kiss.
Davis sees his prostitute again. He mumbles about how terrible the miners are. He thinks he had to exercise an iron fist over the men. The prostitute tells him to calm down.
Pablo's father takes Pablo down to the mine. He is only nine years old and he is very afraid of the mine, especially since his brother died there. He runs upstairs, but his father forces him to go to the mine. Baldomero fell asleep while working on his novel. His wife reads part of his work. Virginia sees Pablo being forced to go to the mines and she is very concerned for his safety. She runs to talk to her godmother. She complains about having no students. Godmother asks her to calm down. She asks how can she when the boys are forced to work in the mines. Isidora says it is not their fault if the parents are not satisfied with the earnings they get from the mine. Virginia snaps back: "But you allow children to work." Isidora describes how fortunate the people are to have been provided with work and shelter by her family. But Virginia will never accept such lame excuses.
Pablo and his father go down into the mine. He gives him a job to push the huge doors open when a horse and guide want to leave the mine with their loads. His dad ties him in place with a rope. Pablo starts doing the job, but he is not happy about it. Fernando goes to Pablo's father to ball him out: "If anything happens to Pablito, you'll pay the price."
Virginia goes to talk with Pablo's mother. The mother just says that her husband makes the decisions. The women invite her to sit and talk. They tell her about their lives and those of their families. When the shift ends the women hide Virginia to make a surprise for Fernando. But Fernando wants to ball out his sister for letting Pablo go into the mines. Virginia comes out from behind a huge white sheet hanging on the clothes line. Fernando is surprised to see her and the women are tickled. The couple take a walk and Virginia tells Fernando that they have to do something to stop the kids from going to the mine. Fernando replies: "We are going to do something." They are going to put an end to this. He tells her they are going to organize and strike. Virginia is worried because this could be very dangerous. She asks him to promise to be careful. He responds that he has been too careful for too long. They kiss. Virginia's coach driver comes to get her. They leave.
Don Luis is brought home. He is very sick. He has tuberculosis. The doctor says the next hours will be critical.
Fernando goes to Baldomero to ask him to draw up for them a document for a miners' association and have it legalized in Concepcion. Baldomero tells him that this is very dangerous. It would put everything he has accomplished in jeopardy. Despite this, Baldomero says he will help the miners. At the meeting of the miners Fernando tells the assembled that they must organize and march. He asks for a show of hands. Slowly more and more of the miners put their hands up until almost everyone does.
Pablo's father goes to tell Davis that Fernando is the leader and he is preparing a legal document for a miners' association. Davis gives Eduardo his money and the man leaves. The prostitute, however, heard all of this from the stairwell. On his way home Fernando is jumped and hit several times. The assailants run away. The mine thugs burst into Baldomero's place. They tell him not to stick his nose into business that is not his. They throw one of his manuscripts in the fire. Baldomero retrieves it and puts the fire out. Now Baldomero has to tell his wife what he has been up to. She is very frightened about what will happen to them. After she goes back to bed, Baldomero starts writing up the legal document.
Mine owner Luis is on his death bed. He asks his wife to finish his electricity manufacturing plant after he dies. She promises. Fernando shows up to talk with Virginia. He accuses her of having betrayed him. He says she was the only one who knew about the miners' plan. He leaves. Luis dies. Fernando goes to Jonas's place. Latter Virginia knocks on the door. She comes in to swear to Fernando that she did not tell anyone. Fernando says she's a poor naive girl who doesn't know anything. Virginia, getting dispirited, says that he's never going to believe her. She starts to leave but Fernando tells her to wait. He sends Jonas away. He apologizes for getting her involved in all this. She swears again that she did not betray him. He says that if she never betrayed him, why did she go to Spain. She replies that they forced her to go. She didn't want to go. They hug and kiss. There is a tiny bit of nudity.
Baldomero works on getting his manuscript back together. The prostitute gets her necklace finally, but Davis wants something more from her. He wants her to live with him. She rejects the offer and drops the necklace on the floor. Davis starts to strangle her and she flops into a chair. The prostitute then goes to see Fernando but has to settle with Jonas and some of his colleagues. The men are suspicious of her. But she tells them that Davis pays Eduardo Castro for information as to their union activities. The word goes out and in the mine the miners cut Eduardo's right ear off for ratting on them.
Isidoro rides on her horse to the mine. Everyone is shocked to see her there. She goes in to see Davis. She explains that she has come to see the mine that her husband would never allow her to see. Davis says that miners don't like women in the mine. She retorts that these are just superstitions and that the mine owner certainly can go into the mine. She also tells Davis that now she will be in charge of the mine. He leaves.
In the company store, Baldomero gives the document to Fernando. But Baldomero says he will have to find himself another clerk. He is going to Santiago to try his hand at writing.
Isidora dedicates the completed electricity plant. It is the first hydroelectric plant in Chile she says. On this Sunday the miners and their wives gather together to march on the mine Jonas tells Fernando that the man who killed his father was Mr. Davis. His mother had sworn him never to tell Fernando. But right now it's time to march. Eduardo Castro leaves his family behind as he leaves for elsewhere. At the mine offices the people get a surprise. A Cavalry unit is there to stop them. The man in charge has the soldiers charge the marchers.
Isidora throws the switch and the test bulb lights up from the electricity. At this moment a man comes to tell Isidora that there is trouble at the mine. The commander of the soldiers wants to shoot Fernando. Isidora rides in shouting: "Don't shoot!" She balls out the commander. Then she tells the people: "And you all, you don't need to cause such a scandal just to talk to me. What do you want?" Fernando says their list of demands is there on the ground under a horse's hoof. Isidora says she will read the demands and then give the people an answer. Fernando says they will not go back to work until she gives them their answer. For this impertinence, she has him arrested. Virginia arrives just in time to see the soldiers escorting Fernando to prison. Virginia speaks with her godmother to get Fernando out of jail. She speaks harshly to Isidora and the older woman slaps Virginia. But she immediately asks for forgiveness.
Virginia visits Fernando in jail. She tells him that she is going to Spain to finish her studies. Fernando is devastated. She asks him to forgive her; that she loves him. The guards arrive and free Fernando. The commander that hates Fernando says he must have an angel watching out for him. Virginia rides away from the mine in a coach. The children of the school stop her to beg her not to go. She is very touched by their concern, but continues on. Isidora tells Davis to to deliver her answer to the miners. Davis goes crazy, telling her that it will destroy the mine by destroying the need of the workers to labor hard and long. Isidora gives the message to another employee and tells him to deliver it. She then promptly fire Davis. He can't believe it. Pablo takes the message to be delivered to Fernando.
Mr. Davis comes to the mine. Virginia has the coachman turn around and return to the mine. Fernando and some of the miners read the answer from Isidora. She reduces the work day, pays a minimum wage for all, and declares a full prohibition of minors in the mines. The men are ecstatic. They go to tell the others. But they run into Mr. Davis. Davis says he wants Fernando. He says it's payback time. He then picks up a sledge hammer and tries to club Fernando. But it is a bit too heavy for him and he has to plop to the floor. Just then the canary dies. The men start running out of the mine. Left behind Fernando confronts Davis with the murder of his father. Davis taunts Fernando with the details of the murder. Fernando strikes him with a shovel to the face. Then Fernando uses the shovel to break a lantern. This ignites a fire and explosion. Both Davis and Fernando are trapped in the mine. The miners go back in and locate Fernando. The mine leader is dead. His body is brought up out of the mine. Virginia cries over him.
Baldomero says: "After the tragedy, Fernando's sacrifice generated new seedlings of hope. I decided to head out for the capital with my stories under my arm and the hope that my words would be a testimony for generations of miners so that one day they could discover and value how much pain, how much love, and how many dreams were shared in Lota. How many lives and deaths shaped the history of this land."
Virginia remained as the teacher for the miners' children.
In 1904 Baldomero Lillo published the book "Sub-Terra". It created quite a stir in society at the time, for its blood-curdling accounts of coal mining. In 1897, Isidora Goyenechea passed away in Europe. When her remains were sent back, the people of Lota filled the streets in silence to say goodbye. The State of Chile took over the coal mines where it extracted the energy to fuel the country's industry for decades. In the underground chambers of Lota over two thousand miners lost their lives in explosions and accidents. The coal mines finally closed their doors in April of 1997.
Good movie. This is one story that had a relatively happy ending. Most employers used violence and thugs to stop the labor movement. But in this labor struggle, the woman owner/employer was extremely gracious in her attitude to those less fortunate than her and her family. So the initial story of the misery of the workers was very familiar territory in the movie, but the response of the owner was not. The woman owner was more like a philanthropist than the selfish employers we see in history. So even if the movie is a good one, it is not representative of most labor struggles in the world. If only it had been so easy for the majority.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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