Lockdown had a remarkably similar effect on many creators, it’s becoming clear. Enforced stasis didn’t inspire much analysis of the present or the future, but prompted a turn back to the past, searching for origins and reflecting on whether our life choices were really choices. We must find a name for this phenomenon, preferably not in German.
The Eight Mountains is based on the 2016 novel by Paolo Cognetti, which won the Premio Strega and became a bestseller in Italy, about a lifelong friendship between two men who meet as boys in the Valle d’Aosta, in the Italian Alps, and in adult life sustain a relationship based on their shared feelings for the mountains.
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The Belgian director Felix van Groeningen – best known for The Broken Circle Breakdown, about a couple who lose their daughter to cancer, and the Timothée Chalamet addiction drama Beautiful Boy – had already been working on an adaptation when Covid struck. In Lockdown he went on to develop the script with his partner and co-director Charlotte Vandermeersch, both feeling “a great longing for the outdoors, for reconnection with the Earth”. To make the movie, they moved to the Alps for eight months, learning Italian.
The Eight Mountains, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year jointly with EO, is long (147 minutes) and minimally plotted – but it is wildly beautiful and tender, so infused with unspoken emotion that it’s a tearful watch even in its most idyllic moments.
In 1984, an 11-year-old city boy, Pietro (Lupo Barbiero), spends the summer with his mother in a remote Alpine village, once thriving but reduced to just 14 inhabitants. Among them is a tough kid his own age, Bruno (Cristiano Sassella) and they easily play together in this astonishing landscape that is the overwhelming presence throughout the film – in different seasons and contrasting types of weather, and at various times of day.
Both of the boys have difficult fathers: Bruno’s an absentee alcoholic bricklayer, Pietro’s a man who hates his factory job in Turin but has never followed his passion for the mountains beyond brief holidays. When Pietro’s parents suggest Bruno come with them to the city for schooling, Bruno’s father immediately takes him away to work on distant construction sites, aged just 13, and the pair lose touch with each other.
As a teenager, Pietro rebels against his father, Giovanni, telling him he never wants to be like him – and then doesn’t speak to him for ten years. The directors opted to use three different actors for each character to bridge these long spans of time and this brief central section is the weakest – perhaps it could have been narrated instead, as part of Pietro’s laconic voiceover.
The relationship resumes after Pietro’s father’s death, the men now in their thirties. It emerges that Bruno (now Alessandro Borghi) had become, in Pietro’s absence, a surrogate son to Giovanni – and that Giovanni has left Pietro (Luca Marinelli) his dream project – a ruined house high on the slopes. Meeting again, the two men, without articulating their feelings for one another, agree to rebuild it into a summer home for them both. Here they come together through the years, while Bruno works on the mountain as a farmer and Pietro wanders the world.
It’s a truly unusual subject in the movies – such a durable, unstated, non-sexual friendship between two adult men, so physically clear but never expressed in any but the tersest of declarations. At one point Bruno says that when he was growing up, the only way of saying you were feeling sad in his dialect was “It seems long”. “I am happy you found your words,” he tells Pietro.
The film itself lives most intensely through its wonderful mountain landscapes, superbly fulfilling that most basic, often forgotten function of cinema, of giving us an elsewhere, another world to inhabit. The obvious choice for aspect ratio might have seemed to be widescreen, but it has been shot in the boxy 1.33:1 Academy aperture, as if pre-emptively acknowledging that these splendours stretch beyond any framing. The director of photography, Ruben Impens, has worked marvels on the mountainside using Steadicam; the few sweeping shots evidently taken from drones are glorious in their way but, when you realise that’s how these vistas are obtained, feel a bit unearned.
The bluesy Swedish folk singer Daniel Norgren contributes a great soundtrack, given plenty of time to sink in, like everything here. The Eight Mountains is slow cinema, forcing nothing on us, inviting our deepest involvement. A rarity.
“The Eight Mountains” is in cinemas now
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This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?