Felix van Groenigen and Charlotte Vandermeersch’s The Eight Mountains is about the ebbs and flows of time and the friendship between two unlikely friends over decades.
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Felix van Groenigen and Charlotte Vandermeersch’s The Eight Mountains is an epic story of a friendship between two unlikely boys over decades and across continents. Local Bruno (Cristiano Sassella) and city-dweller Pietro (Lupo Barbiero) are the only children in a small Italian town one summer. They become fast friends. Class differences and what those mean for growing up quickly tear them apart. A loss more than a decade later unexpectedly brings them back together. A piece of land ties them to each other for another decade. This intimate story feels sweeping in scope, thanks to the many wide shots of the characters against the awe-inspiring landscape.
Just as Daniel Norgren croons on the soundtrack about “time slip[ping] away,” The Eight Mountains is about the ebbs and flows of time and friendship. In one scene, the children part ways at the end of the summer. In the next cut, it’s summer again. One night, child Pietro storms up the stairs to his room. When we cut, he’s an adolescent (Andrea Palma) who hasn’t spoken to Bruno in years. Fifteen years go by in a flash. Nico Leunen’s editing never draws attention to itself, slyly stretching and shrinking time to align with its emotional weight. A summer full of possibilities features many scenes, some of them long. Years get elided into a brief voiceover and a couple of quick images.
Friends reconcile in The Eight Mountains
And yet the summer when Pietro (Luca Marinelli) and Burno (Alessandro Borghi) reconcile in their thirties feels like years. In scene after scene, we watch them build a house together, share meals, and repair what they lost. They edge closer and closer to each other in space and the frame as the ice between them melts. Just as the precious summer months felt like years to them as children, it’s as if the last fifteen years apart, largely offscreen, disappeared. Pietro returns to that town every summer thereafter. Though we see glimpses of their lives apart, they are always short. Their lives are most vivid when they’re together. Women come and go, and even children. But their friendship becomes the most important relationship in their lives.
Polar opposites in temperament
The men are polar opposites in temperament. Since he was a child, Bruno wanted to reclaim his family’s legacy of running an arpeggio in the mountains. Even then, the tough economic times had already driven all other families out of town, including his father. Pietro doesn’t know what he wants except not to become his work-obsessed, emotionally distant engineer father. He drifts from temporary job to job, in his hometown and sometimes further afield. He slowly starts to pursue his writing. Even as a child, he was scribbling. Bruno’s stubbornness means he keeps chasing an impossible goal. Pietro’s flexibility, and higher class position to begin with, make things easier. The economic realities of their pursuits catch up to them with age. One man finds his way while the other digs in his heels further in unhappiness.
There’s very little dialogue in The Eight Mountains, and Pietro even describes the men in his family as uncommunicative. Yet he and Bruno communicate in silence — in a look, tilt of the head, slumped postures, or fast-moving enthusiasm. Sometimes, being in Bruno’s arpeggio and mountains is enough for Pietro to understand him. There’s a spare voiceover from Pietro as if the whole film is being recalled from a bittersweet memory. We skip over months and years in favour of the most emotionally powerful moments. These moments are often small: a shared glass of wine, tending to a plant, or a meaningful look that foretells a life change.
The Eight Mountains recalls Oslo, August 31st
And yet The Eight Mountains reminded me of one of my favourite films, Oslo, August 31st. Both films deal with friends who understand each other better than anyone else, where one’s situation leads to mental health issues. Like Oslo, The Eight Mountains is a sensitive depiction of male friendship. Both films feature strapping young men who are vulnerable, confused, and sometimes helpless to help the person who matters most. Whereas the men in Oslo talk about everything to avoid talking about what’s most important, The Eight Mountains happens in silences. Both films reward repeat viewings, partly because you know what will happen. In The Eight Mountains, you’re more in Pietro’s shoes on the second viewing. You’re watching for all the signs, relishing all the joyous moments.
Marinelli and Borghi construct a believable friendship and embody the weight of the passage of time as the years mount. Marinelli goes from hopelessly clumsy to relaxed and content, while Borghi becomes tense and worn. Things change, and yet they also don’t. The actors don’t wear any age makeup or look much different from year to year. The film’s almost three-hour run time also helps you feel like you’ve lived a lifetime with these men.
A sincere, tactile film
It would be easy to dismiss The Eight Mountains as a melodrama with a too-on-the-nose score, in the way critics dismissed Naomi Kawase’s films. But the filmmaking is so sincere, the characters so rich, and the images by cinematographer Ruben Impens so beautiful. More important is the many ways the sound design creates quiet. It’s in the sounds of footsteps on fresh snow, a hammer tapping in the distance, or branches blowing in the wind. It makes the film tactile. Everything feels so real and present.
Listen to the podcast discussion on The Eight Mountains
You may also like our podcast on male friendship, masculinity and mental health in Oslo, August 31st and Another Round.