Film Review: Nossa ChapeFox Sports presents a taut and moving tale of a soccer team struck by disaster and the town determined to see them make a comeback.
Fox Sports Films’ Nossa Chape documents a love and a loss that are both hard to fathom—unless one hails from Chapecó, Brazil, or has grown attached to any sports figure like a cherished member of the family. A small agro-industrial town that rose out of the Brazilian wilderness far from any major city, Chapecó appears to live and breathe for its soccer team, the club commonly known as Chapecoense.
Via news and match footage, the film succinctly relays the excitement shared by the whole town in 2014 when Chapecoense qualified for the nation’s futbol Série A league in 2014. And that thrill is nothing compared to the pride that lifted the town when the team progressed in 2016 to the final of the Copa Sudamericana.
Set to contend for the cup against Colombia’s Atlético Nacional, the team, accompanied by almost all of the club’s administrative and support staff, were on a flight to Medellín when their plane ran out of fuel and crashed approaching the airport. The disaster left 71 dead: 19 players, 25 members of management and staff, 20 reporters and seven members of the plane’s flight crew.
Sibling filmmakers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist’s riveting Nossa Chape (Our Team) reveals at first a team and a town that have been utterly destroyed by the unimaginable. Then, with the tension of a well-plotted sports drama, the documentary tracks the team’s rise from the ashes of grief back to something like normal.
While dramatic, the film steers clear of sensationalizing the crash with morbid or graphic coverage, but it’s not above bathing thoroughly in the devastated tears of the fans, the widows and surviving team members. Sixpassengers on the flight survived—three players, one reporter and two flight attendants—and the film is saved from overindulging its maudlin tendencies by focusing on the survivors’ fight to regain full strength and peace of mind.
It’s not an easy path of recovery for anyone. Of the three players who flew and lived, Alan Ruschel can’t remember the crash and doesn’t care to remember. His teammate Hélio Neto remembers it vividly, even though the crash initially left him in a coma. The third, Jackson Follman, also remembers, despite the fact that he woke up in the bushes after the crash, only to be informed in the hospital that he had lost a leg and would never play pro soccer again.
Recovering from spinal damage and multiple other injuries, Ruschel is determined to play again. Neto wakes from his coma, believing God left him alive to play, so he must. But they, and the team, first have to rebuild their squad of players and coaches and managers from scratch. Plus, there’s the drama of prosecutors’ attempts to hold the airline accountable.
Then, a group of widows files suit against Chapecoense, alleging the club owes them for underpayment of image rights. They contend that the club exploits their husbands’ memories to sell tickets and profits from their deaths with commemorative merchandise. The widows have a point. Even one of the three players who survived the crash resists being used by the team as a sentimental token of perseverance through tragedy.
All told, there’s enough turmoil, suffering and struggle to fill a season (or at least several episodes) of a telenovela. The Zimbalists, aided by editors Jordan Baese and Luis Dechtiar and onscreen captions, clip quickly through the plot turns, yet deliver a thorough rendering of the playing field and of how each of the subjects is affected by the team’s post-crash evolution.
After some tough matches and vocal criticism from fans, the new coach decides it’s time to stop mourning and move on to “a new phase.” The film movingly turns to behind-the-scenes and cellphone video to paint the picture of the joy and camaraderie that previously had held the team together. The team’s human losses are well-represented and the town’s sadness is palpable. Everyone interviewed speaks of the tragedy that struck “us,” not “them.”
The one major flaw here might be that the film’s sense of the dramatic doesn’t flow as richly through the onscreen gameplay. Viewers looking for dramatic futbol footage won’t be sated by the doc’s spare amount of action on the pitch. The soccer footage usually lasts for only quick cuts of shots on goal, barely enough to fill the highlight reel of a local news broadcast.
Early montages don’t much elaborate the ebbs and flows of any one particular match. It’s an hour in before the film uses copious game footage to build the story of a single match—when the new Chapecoense play to advance in competition for the Recopa, a South American pro championship described as “the continent’s most-prized trophy.” The game is pivotal. It could mark Alan Ruschel’s return to the pitch playing for his team and for his town.
When the filmmakers take their time with a match, the film captures something special in the suspense and anticipation over victory or loss. In that match, Nossa Chape, and Ruschel, stand on the brink of a Hollywood ending, and it’s impossible to root against them.
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