The film 'The Eight Mountains' tells the story of a sprawling, decades-long friendship
Male friendships in movies are so often depicted as back-slapping bro-downs or coded with queer subtext that it’s rare to see a film explore the subject with the reverence and mystery of “The Eight Mountains.” This sprawling, decades-spanning drama from Belgian filmmakers Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and appears to be on track for similar honors here in the States. I don’t mean to be too disparaging when I say it reminds me of the kind of movies that used to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film back in the 1980s and early ‘90s: prestigious, handsomely mounted and a little bit stiff.
Adapted from Paolo Cognetti’s 2016 novel “Le Otto Montagne,” the story begins in 1984 with eleven-year-old Pietro (Lupo Barbiero) vacationing with his family in a breathtaking stretch of the Italian Alps. They’re city people from Turin, but Pietro’s father, Giovanni (Filippo Timi), only seems truly content up here in the mountains, scaling their heights with the vigor of a man half his age. In the village, they meet Bruno (Cristiano Sassella), a bricklayer's son roughly Pietro’s age. Early on, it’s obvious to everybody he’s the kind of son Giovanni wished he had. Bruno’s athletic and capable, from hearty peasant stock. Unlike the timid, bookish Pietro, who can barely make it through a hike without suffering altitude sickness.
In spite of these differences (or maybe because of them), the boys become fast friends for an enchanted summer in these Edenic surroundings. Come autumn, life will send Pietro and Bruno their separate ways. The movie chronicles how their wildly divergent paths will keep crossing time and again, usually during sun-dappled summers, over the next 30 years. Played as an adult by “Martin Eden” star Luca Marinelli, Pietro is a wanderer, a lost soul trying out various professions and personalities on his way to being a writer. But Bruno (Alessandro Borghi) will always be Bruno, sturdy and simple, with dreams of re-opening his aunt and uncle’s dairy farm. It’s impossible for him to imagine a life beyond these mountains. Looking around at the sumptuously photographed vistas, one wonders why he’d want to.
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to have a friend with whom you can be comfortable being yourself without having to talk too much about it, you’ll appreciate the dynamic at play in “The Eight Mountains.” Pietro and Bruno have little in common on the surface, yet understand each other on a deeper and more meaningful level that neither they nor the movie need to explain. There’s an accumulation of lived experience felt over the film’s 147 minutes, eschewing melodrama in favor of meaningful little gestures and knowing nods. (A few years ago, smarty-pants culture writers got really into shrugging off stories like this with the vaguely homophobic term “bromance,” which I note with relief seems to have finally fallen out of fashion.)
Coming off a heralded career in Belgium, van Groeningen made his disastrous Hollywood debut with 2018’s “Beautiful Boy.” A cautionary tale about how drug addiction can also happen to people who look like they live inside a Land’s End catalog, the film is perhaps best remembered for star Timothée Chalamet’s passionate recitation of Charles Bukowski poems over the closing credits — an unintentionally hilarious gift to ushers stuck sweeping the auditorium between shows during its brief theatrical run.
The director was on surer footing with his 2013 hit “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” which, like “The Eight Mountains,” he co-wrote with his wife, Vandermeersch. Following the disintegrating marriage of two bluegrass musicians after the death of their child from leukemia, the film was similarly interested in how our closest relationships can expand and contract over time. And like van Groeningen and Vandermeersch’s latest collaboration, it was well-crafted, heartfelt and went on a little too long for its own good.
There’s some excellent filmmaking on display here. There’s also an awful lot of it. Cinematographer Ruben Impens makes the fascinatingly counterintuitive choice of shooting in the boxy Academy aspect ratio, which, instead of stressing the horizontal vastness of the landscapes, emphasizes these mountains’ almost unfathomable heights. Yet there’s a repetitiveness to the movie’s “Same Time, Next Year” scenario that becomes something of a chore as these characters enter middle age. “The Eight Mountains” is a worthy film, but I think we could have made do with five or six.
“The Eight Mountains” opens at Coolidge Corner Theatre on Friday, May 26.