I was surprised to discover that the recently released The Eight Mountains is an adaptation of a novel, written in 2016 by Paolo Cognetti. The film seemed more like a product of the pandemic, tackling themes of loneliness, self-discovery and reconnecting with ‘what truly matters’, something many felt over the last couple years.
Perhaps those at Cannes Festival last year felt that same resonance when they awarded the film the Jury Prize, a well-deserved accolade for this two-and-a-half-hour drama by directors Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch.
Le otto montagne (as the film is originally known – or De acht bergen in Dutch), tells the story of two men, who reconnect twenty years after a childhood friendship. We first meet Pietro (Luca Marinelli), a relatively privileged boy from Turin on holiday at his summer home in the Alps, and Bruno (Alessandro Borghi), a local country boy with a dysfunctional family background, both aged 12. After charting their close friendship, with Bruno becoming close to Pietro’s family, the two become separated through their teens and twenties.
Only when Pietro’s father Giovanni (Filippo Timi) dies in their early 30s do the two men reunite. Pietro, who had been long-estranged from his father by that point, learns only then of how close his father had become with Bruno. The two men honour Giovanni by building a house together, a promise Bruno had made to his father figure.
It is here that Pietro and Bruno, in their shared journey of moving on from Giovanni, and their pursuit of a peaceful life, deepen their friendship once more. Though their backgrounds are different – urban versus rural, richer versus poorer – their life paths are shaped and deeply impacted by their relationships with nature.
The observation by country-man Bruno that only city folk regard trees, meadows or mountains as ‘nature’ and miraculous, rather than as practical things to interact with, was one that felt particularly impactful, and targeted to audiences in the likes of metropolitan Amsterdam. That we in the big city should reconsider how we live with nature; to co-exist alongside it, or think of ourselves as part of it, rather than spectate it from afar as voyeurs.
Regardless, I’d be neglecting my reviewing duties if I didn’t remark on the exquisite cinematography, with the film set primarily in the Alps, and later Nepal.
As we follow Pietro and Bruno’s stories’ through their 30s, they go through periods of being far apart while Pietro travels, and close together, back in their built summer house annually. Their friendship, whatever the distance between the two men, remains intimate, bound by their deep understanding of each other. The directors and actors pull their weight here, given the men’s shared inability to articulate and verbally communicate their feelings.
The film is named after a Himalayan metaphor, which queries whether it is better to climb the highest mountain in life, or travel through eight smaller mountains. In other words, whether peace is found through establishing roots, or by remaining restless and curious about what else is out there in the world. Bruno and Pietro’s friendship is a way in which they learn which of these paths they wish to take.
But, more interestingly, the film’s focus on the two men allows for an in-depth exploration into male friendship and communication. Pietro narrates throughout the film, and contrasts the peripheral female characters in the film with himself and Bruno as “silent men”. The film is strong in showing how their stereotypically masculine qualities – their struggle to articulate their mental health, their perceived need to provide for those around them and so on – help and hinder their journeys.
With a duration of about 150 minutes, The Eight Mountains does drag at times, with montage after montage of alpine and Nepalese scenery that – while beautiful – seemed to prove Bruno’s city-folk argument correct. Furthermore, as the film explores the lives of these men across several decades, there is some not-so-subtle foreshadowing in the earlier parts that makes the plot a little easier to predict.
But, ultimately, the story is secondary to the ideas and characters that the film presents. The film is a satisfying exploration into how we should understand nature, ourselves, and our purposes. The Eight Mountains issues a compelling invitation to the audience to re-evaluate our priorities, and for that it is worth the watch.
Written by Joe Marshall