Film Review: “The Eight Mountains” — Four Decades of Male Bonding

By Peter Keough

The Eight Mountains offers peak entertainment.

The Eight Mountains screens at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi in The Eight Mountains. Photo: Alberto Novelli/ Wildside

Cinema sometimes can rival novels when it comes to tracing a character through a long stretch of time. Take Return to Seoul, whose rhythms of editing, image, music, and sound record the tenuous stasis of an individual as the years pass. Likewise Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch’s adaptation of Italian author Paolo Cognetti’s lyrical, award-winning novel. Winner of the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, The Eight Mountains achieves a moving and poetic, though sometimes maudlin and portentous, evocation of a four-decade-long friendship.

It starts in 1984 when 11-year-old Pietro, the protagonist (who is all-too-present in post-facto, older but wiser voice-over ruminations) spends the summer with his mother and father vacationing in a depressed village in the Italian Alps. There he meets Bruno, the last child in the village, a rustic roughneck who tends cows for his uncle while his alcoholic absentee father works as a laborer in Switzerland and Austria.

In one of the film’s more authentic scenes, the two boys are introduced by Pietro’s mother over milk and cookies. She shows herself in the brief exchange to be wise, kind, and long-suffering. Pietro is shy, curious, and in awe of the stranger. And Bruno is sullen and enigmatic. Without saying much the two boys hit it off and scamper away for a blissful montage of messing around in derelict village ruins or building a dam in a stream. A tune by Swedish folkie Daniel Norgren underscores the mood of limpid nostalgia.

The contrast between this summer retreat and Pietro’s home in Turin is made clear with a shot of him on the glassed-in, barred balcony of their apartment. It is like a prison cell. Despite the steadying presence of his mother he has a hard time dealing with his father Giovanni (Filippo Timi), who is erratic, driven, and unhappy. Pietro had once bragged to Bruno that his dad is an engineer in a factory with 10,000 workers. But this position of responsibility gives his father little satisfaction; it only seems to stress him out.We see him swearing at traffic and exploding at other petty irritations. He only feels free when he’s in the mountains, climbing peaks and meticulously mapping his excursions, and that is the only time Pietro feels close to him, at least for a while.

Flash-forward a couple of decades and Pietro (Luca Marinelli) and Bruno (Alessandro Borghi) have gained girth and grown beards and turned into the spitting images, respectively, of Jake Gyllenhaal and Zack Galifianakis. In the interim Pietro has fallen out with his father and become a wanderer; Bruno has beaten up his father and stayed put. Neither has amounted to much, Though they spend long periods apart, when they reunite it’s like old times. They can’t quit each other but because there’s no sex involved, they don’t have to.

When his father unexpectedly dies, Pietro learns that in his absence Bruno had become a kind of surrogate son to his parents and that his father had made Bruno promise that he would build a house in an idyllic spot in the mountains high above the village. The two friends bond anew over this project, which, like the mountains, becomes an abiding metaphor in the film.

Not that van Groeningen and Vandermeersch dwell overmuch in such abstraction; in fact, the film is remarkable in its depiction of the concrete, from stunning landscapes to the grimy details of everyday life, which range from the spectacle of blizzards and surging rivers to the meticulous processes of constructing a cabin or running a dairy. As such it is reminiscent of Thoreau’s Walden or another recent film about two men who dwell together in the wilderness – Øyvind Elvsborg’s documentary Forest Brothers. But when the project is completed, the two separate once again, with Pietro determined to return to the cabin every summer to resume his connection with the mountain and with his friend.

Perhaps it is a little too predictable that Pietro’s hippie-like wanderings take him to the Himalayas and Nepal, though he doesn’t draw much from the local Buddhist culture beyond anecdotes about the macabre practice of “sky burials” and an affection for the mandala that gives the book and the film its title. Bruno, meanwhile, has taken up with one of Pietro’s cast-off girlfriends, who joins him in making cheese at his uncle’s failing farm. During a boozy reunion Pietro tells Bruno about the mandala, drawing a picture of it and explaining how there are eight mountains that make up the world, a giant one in the center and seven smaller ones surrounding it. Some people are content to remain on the mountain in the middle, like Bruno, others like Pietro roam about the rest. In the end, who is happier? Is either?

But another, more compelling metaphor is articulated by Pietro’s father. Earlier in the film, when he, Pietro and Bruno attempt to climb a glacier — the only time all three had gone on such an expedition together — he explains that the snow high up on the mountains doesn’t melt, that over eons it forms these vast sheets of ice. “The glacier,” he says, “is the memory of past winters that the mountain safeguards for us.”

Later, when Pietro and his father part for the last time, one of Norgren’s most powerfully affecting songs, “Everything You Know Melts Like Snow,” plays on the soundtrack. But the father’s observation contradicts the sentiment expressed in that title. Perhaps it answers François Villon’s age-old question, where are the snows of yesteryear? They don’t melt; instead they are transformed into the vast weight of the past, of history, and shape the world and our lives.

Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).

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