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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘The Eight Mountains’ review: A bond forged amid splendor

Alessandro Borghi, left, as Bruno and Luca Marinelli as Pietro in “The Eight Mountains” by Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch.

By Manohla Dargis

Pietro, the restless, openhearted city boy who narrates “The Eight Mountains,” a tender story about love and friendship, is 11 years old when the movie begins. By the time he is in his early 30s, he is a man with a full beard and an inconsequential résumé. A sensitive, charismatic melancholic, Pietro is unattached and existentially unsettled. Cut off from his past and uncertain about the future, he suffers from a familiar contemporary complaint that this story restively circles without naming, one that looks a lot like the modern condition.

Based on a slender, celebrated 2016 novel by Italian writer Paolo Cognetti, “The Eight Mountains” tracks Pietro across both decades and continents, charting his life through the intense friendship that he makes in childhood with Bruno. They first meet in the summer of 1984, when Pietro’s parents — the family lives in Turin — rent an apartment in a village in the Aosta Valley, a shockingly beautiful swathe of the Italian Alps that borders both France and Switzerland. There, nestled among velvety green slopes and towered over by jagged, soaring peaks, Pietro finds a friend, an ally, a role model and, in time, a sense of belonging.

For both boys, their friendship proves a soul-sustaining connection, one that begins with them dubiously eyeing each other in Pietro’s dark, claustrophobic holiday home but that rapidly shifts once they dash outside. They walk, race and tumble through the area, exploring and sharing. Bruno is a confident, physically vigorous child who can scale the side of a stone building like a goat scampering up a rock face. He’s being raised by his aunt and uncle — his mother is missing in action, his father works abroad as a bricklayer — and is the only child in his village, its population having dwindled, as in other rural areas, to a ghostly near-dozen.

These early scenes are intoxicating, partly because it’s very pleasant to watch happy children just be happy together, and this is an especially stunning place to explore. Like Pietro, you are immediately plunged into the region’s splendors and mysteries, its densely sheltering foliage, enigmatically abandoned corners and dramatic, seemingly limitless vistas. Whether they’re poking about a derelict building or rushing through an enveloping tunnel of green, and even when they’re just chatting, trading helpful morsels of information — Pietro’s father works as an engineer at a large factory — the two remain visually tethered to the material world.

Belgian writer-directors Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch keep the characters — and the movie — immersed in beauty as the children grow up, drift apart and reunite as adults. (Van Groeningen also directed “The Broken Circle Breakdown.”) The adaptation skews fairly close to Cognetti’s novel, though the filmmakers have the advantage of showing you the mountains he describes in language that, at least in its English translation, can drift into mystically tinged abstraction. Working with cinematographer Ruben Impens, they give you a sense of tangible place as they plot the area’s profound geometry, roam across its shimmering glacial snow and catch the backlit mist wreathing the mountains.

There are moments when these ravishments come close to the touristic, though this is attenuated by the filmmakers’ unexpected use of the boxy Academy ratio. Here, this square framing has the old-fashioned quality of early still photographs, particularly in some of the opening scenes, which avoids the postcard-like associations these landscapes might have had in widescreen. Mostly, though, what grounds “The Eight Mountains” are the three sets of actors who play Pietro and Bruno as children (Lupo Barbiero and Cristiano Sassella); as teenagers (Andrea Palma and Francesco Palombelli in the most abbreviated section); and, especially, as adults (the seamlessly synced Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi).

Pietro is the story’s font and focus, which gives Marinelli the more central, psychologically developed role, though the adult actors share the screen as comfortably and generously as the child performers do. “The Eight Mountains” is a memory movie — it opens with a voice-over from the adult Pietro — and Marinelli, with his lilting intonation and startled, near-protuberant eyes, makes a natural and sympathetic lodestar, even when his character (or the story) makes some false moves. (Marinelli played a very different searcher in the 2020 movie “Martin Eden.”) Borghi has far fewer lines, but he brings eloquence to Bruno’s silences.

Van Groeningen and Vandermeersch smoothly carry Pietro and Bruno across time, which by turns expands and contracts, races forward and decelerates. Years rush by — sometimes in a single, gasp-inducing edit — as the story skitters from one period to the next. It slows down again after the death of Pietro’s father (a terrific, intense Filippo Timi), which provokes some predictable oedipally haunted soul-searching for Pietro and, crucially, brings him back to the mountains and to Bruno. Bushy-bearded and face to face, the men effortlessly reconnect, resuming a friendship that — or so the story insists — has sustained them over time and great distances, allowing them to bridge the often yawning gaps between them.

The spiritual dimension of Pietro and Bruno’s bond has its appeal, and one of the movie’s pleasures is that it takes male friendship seriously. There’s an expressly erotic dimension to the men’s love for each other, as can be the case with intimate relationships, though not an explicitly carnal one. They love and sustain each other, and it seems telling that neither forms a long-term romantic relationship until they’re adults. Perhaps, during one of the long summer evenings they spend together after Pietro returns to the area, one quietly reaches for the other under the cover of night. The filmmakers don’t say and neither does the novel, which each suggests that material concerns aren’t finally what troubles these two characters.

The precise nature of the men’s disquiet remains blurry, almost as if no one has ever seen an Antonioni film, though there are suggestions that the world beyond the valley — with its dirty air and noisy streets, its violence and politics — is a prime suspect. Yet even when that outside world bears down on Pietro and especially Bruno, the movie skitters away from messy, unpleasant particulars, which makes its painful passages easier to take but also blunts its impact. Both death and taxes take a heavy toll on the characters, exacting a cost that will make you weep even as the filmmakers smooth out the rough edges, crank the soulful tunes and turn their limpid gaze on a world that, alas, isn’t as beautiful as they seem to want it to be.

‘The Eight Mountains’: Not rated. In Italian, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 27 minutes. In theaters.

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