The Eight Mountains is a sublime saga of male friendship in the high Alps

Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch’s adaptation of Paolo Cognetti’s novel tracks two boys’ deepening bond as men apart from society and at one with nature.

The Eight Mountains (Le otto montaigne, 2022)
  • Reviewed at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.

Only city folk think of nature as Nature, complains Alpine native Bruno (Alessandro Borghi). All that local people think of are things you can point at with your finger: trees, a stream, a meadow. And yet, watching Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch’s adaptation of Paolo Cognetti’s prize-winning novel The Eight Mountains, a saga of a friendship from youth through adulthood, it’s impossible not to weigh such abstractions as countryside and city, civilisation and the wild, oppositions that play out in many comparable stories of camaraderie – Mark Twain’s half-civilised Tom Sawyer and his friend Huckleberry Finn, say, or Johanna Spyri’s Heidi and her goatherd friend Peter.

It’s 1984 when Pietro (played as a child by Lupo Barbiero) first arrives in the Italian Alps for a summer holiday with his mother (Elena Lietti). At his first meeting with Bruno, the difference between the pair is stark. Pietro is a soft-spoken 11-year-old in bright woolly jumpers and shiny hair; Bruno (Cristiano Sassella), slightly older, is all wellies and cow muck. Pietro is spoilt without being brattish; Bruno is foul-mouthed and has to interrupt their play to milk the cows. They literally speak different languages as Bruno teaches Pietro the dialect of the village where he is the only remaining boy, everyone else fleeing in the face of an economic reality that has made rural life untenable.

Despite the idyllic setting, beautifully captured in Ruben Impens’ neat Academy-aspect cinematography, the friendship has its complications. The boys both have dysfunctional relationships with their fathers, and Pietro feels some jealousy when his parents appraise Bruno’s situation and take him back to Turin for schooling. When this falls through, the boys grow distant. Pietro, alienated from his father (Filippo Timi), wanders from job to job without much direction. But after his father dies, Pietro (now played by Luca Martinelli) discovers he had stayed close with Bruno (Borghi) who has now promised to build Pietro a house in a remote patch of the mountains.

Alessandro Borghi as Bruno and Luca Martinelli as Pietro in The Eight Mountains

The surprising shift in the story is how the film matures with the characters. As adults they become much deeper friends than they ever were as children – no searching for lost innocence here – and their growing maturity is wonderfully portrayed by the two actors, who find better versions of themselves in their understanding of each other. The building of the house over the course of a summer becomes the objective correlative of their friendship, something they can forever share. They enjoy the isolation, swimming in the lake, and conversation. Pietro – or Berio, as he is called in dialect – lightens up and finally finds some direction, traveling to the Himalayas and gaining some success as a writer. Bruno on the other hand throws himself into the idea of living like his ancestors as a true man of the mountains, herding and milking cattle and making cheese.

Borghi and Martinelli in The Eight Mountains

The nature of their friendship is almost anti-dramatic. When Bruno falls for a former girlfriend of Pietro’s, there’s no jealousy or fight; everything is resolved in a simple phone call. When one of the friends needs help, he asks for and receives it. A bad falling out is resolved the next day. Ang Lee’s male romance Brokeback Mountain inevitably comes to mind, given the film’s pastoral setting and long arc of time, but it is good to see friendship here portrayed with as much complexity as sexual relationships so often are. Martinelli and Borghi are superb, opening up to each other in moments of intimacy yet able to switch to a relaxed matey-ness. The framing of every shot is exquisite and the sense of place and time, the steepness and prospect of the mountains, the snow and freshness of spring are palpable. Daniel Nogren’s soundtrack is often surprising and touching.

One criticism is of an unnecessary voiceover all too redolent of John-Boy’s novelistic musings in The Waltons. Some will also balk at the leisurely two-and-a-half-hour running time, but in the mountains the air is clearer and time moves at a different pace. And Bruno and Pietro have a bond you can point at with your finger and say, there it is: there’s a friendship.

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