much like a glacier explored eight mountains, the film captures the memories of a lifetime, mythologizing each moment that occurred. Written and directed by husband and wife duo Felix van Groeningen (Pretty Boy) and Charlotte Vandermeersch, there is a palpable love in this project they embarked on after a difficult time. With the first draft of the script completed in the spring of 2020, it’s no surprise that they were captivated by such expansive nature stories after being cooped up at home.
Adapted from Paolo Cognetti’s beautifully concise novel of the same name, eight mountains (Winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes) follows the life of Pietro Gusti, mainly played by Luca Marinelli, from the age of 11 to the following decades. We first meet Pietro when his parents – Francesca and Giovanni, played by Elena Liett and Filippo Timi respectively – take him to spend the summer in a small village in the Alps. Here he meets Bruno Guglielmina, played by Alessandro Borghi, and the trajectory of his life is changed irrevocably.
As the only two children of Grana, the village where Bruno lives, visited by Pietro, the couple’s bond seemed inevitable, but its longevity was more than a matter of convenience friendship. Describing the isolation he experienced in the town, Bruno told Pietro, “They built a road to attract more people to Grana, and you know what happened? They all left.”
So, with the arrival of another boy his own age, how could he not seek friendship? What cemented their bond was when Giovanni began taking them on breathtaking hikes in the surrounding peaks and, most importantly, the glaciers. On a glacier hike, the three reach a crevasse that Giovanni and Bruno can cross, but Pietro cannot.
As time went on, the rift between Pietro and his father deepened, while Bruno and Giovanni grew closer. After 15 years of zero contact, Pietro and Bruno are reunited by an unexpected event. Now, as adults, they’ve built an alpine cabin together, and they’ll continue to see each other for summers to come. Through a series of excursions, conversations and projects, the film gently traverses ideas of dreams, manhood and nature and society. Its loose structure is fitting, allowing the narrative to wobble year after year.
The struggle between urbanism and ruralism
The conflict between the picturesque mountain life – dealing with animals and the land – and the looming necessity to return to the city for education, business or social connections is eight mountains. Born and raised at lower altitudes, Pietro feels a responsibility to live a more normal life. He’s bouncing from one unfulfilling job to the next, always waiting for the chance to return to his mountain retreat. Bruno, on the other hand, can’t imagine a life outside of the life he’s known, which is making cheese and bathing in streams.
While each is jealous of the other for what they feel they lack, the reality is they are all stunted by their relationship to the mountains. For Pietro, his dream seemed out of reach, as he firmly believed that life on the mountain was unsustainable. It wasn’t until he was encouraged by Bruno who represented this ideal that he was able to find real purpose in his work. By contrast, Bruno’s restrictive lifestyle had its own consequences. He discussed how his way of expressing grief in his regional dialect was to say “seems long,” and that he didn’t realize there were other ways of expressing emotion, “bad words, bad thoughts.” Yet despite this revelation, He remained stoic in the face of turmoil.
The film’s 1.33:1 aspect ratio visualizes the push and pull between these two men and their beautiful but constrained surroundings. While we’re presented with indescribably stunning landscapes, the aspect ratio prevents us from getting the unobstructed expanse that viewers have come to expect. By limiting the visuals in this way, a strong and intimate sense of place is created, but at the expense of expanse and freedom.
Also, it helps to position the movie in its 1980s (beginning) setting when aspect ratios were more widely used. This detail comes from cinematographer Ruben Impens (black mirror, titan) combines the film’s visual style with its central argument. He does this in a subtle enough way that it doesn’t get in the way of the action itself, but still affects how we experience the entire runtime.
Ebb and flow of meandering structures
eight mountains There’s a loose, meandering structure, which is fine for a film that’s primarily concerned with hiking and talking. While the lack of a traditional plot or arc might turn off those used to tighter fare, it’s the most fitting way to tell this story. In a sense, the story is like a series of vignettes each season that the two friends spend together or apart. The format gives each moment room to breathe and allows the scenes to flow together effortlessly.
The unrestrained shapes of these scenes make the most of moments of silence. Rather than rushing through quick dialogue through important moments in order not to lose the audience’s attention, the script takes its time. From the perspective of our busy days, this provides a blissful reprieve from our culture of constant connection and notification. As Pietro and Bruno hike, we experience the sounds of nearby animals, their breathing, and the ground beneath their feet. On their first hike together, Bruno started talking, but was quickly cut off by Pietro, who said: “We can talk later. Now we can’t. We’ll talk when we stop.” It is these silences that immerse us even more in their distant world.
Where Eight Mountains Where the structure falls short is in its rhythm and how it captures the passage of time. The early stages of Pietro and Bruno’s lives, as children and teenagers, passed quickly. As a result, the complex relationship between Bruno, Pietro and Pietro’s father was built hastily.
To be sure, in the grand scheme of life, these early years do pass quickly, and the film reflects the elusiveness of youth. However, when so much of the movie hinges on the boy’s relationship with the men in his life, it could have spent more time exploring that. Especially considering the filmmakers had 147 minutes at their disposal, and the final scene is slightly more than it should be.
Machismo, Fatherhood, and Mountains
One of the most refreshing aspects of the film is its ability to discuss masculinity and fatherhood in a way that feels natural.It avoids falling into the camp of overly graphic criticism such as Banshee of Inisherin, they use violent shock tactics to make their point. Instead, it just shows us the complicated dynamic between the two men and their father. Pietro is ashamed of his father’s lack of social life and dreams, leading him to want freedom and escape. Bruno’s father took him away from home to work when he was 13, so as soon as he was able he returned to the mountains and never wanted to leave.
A thoughtful discussion ensued about their father’s family and how the different generations influenced each other. The fact that Pietro and Bruno take the time to unpack these bikes is especially cautious due to Italy’s machismo culture. While patriarchal ideals and misogyny are prevalent across the globe, they affect each culture differently. In a voiceover, Pietro says his mother is “accustomed to living among men who are silent” and will therefore take on the burden of communicating with the family. Pietro and Bruno have come a long way in improving their father’s behavior, but are still unable to communicate in a completely off-guard manner.
Another actor was originally cast as Giovanni, but dropped out due to shooting conditions and had to be replaced at the last minute, according to Filmmaker Magazine. This works in the film’s favor, as Timmy does an amazing job with relatively few scenes. He conveys anger, sadness, strength, and vulnerability all at once, and provides an incredible foundation for subsequent observations of masculinity throughout the film. Without his performance as the patriarch, the story would not have started through various discussions about the connection with friends, nature and self, with the inevitable return to the mountains to rest like Pietro and Giovanni.
From Wildside, Rufus, Menuetto, and Pyramide Productions, in partnership with Elastic Distribution, eight mountains Opening May 5 in Los Angeles, presented by Vision Distribution, you can find showtimes and listings here.