Review: The Eight Mountains Features a Sweeping Story of Friendship, with Cinematography to Match

Winner of the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, The Eight Mountains is based on the celebrated novel by Paolo Cognetti, concerning a decades-long journey of friendship, failure, self-discovery, and growth, all set in the shadows and under the influence of the Italian Alps. From co-writers/directors Felix van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown, Beautiful Boy), Charlotte Vandermeersch (the writer of Broken Circle; marking her directorial debut), the film follows the ever-evolving but always close relationship between two childhood best friends, Pietro and Bruno, across roughy 40 years.

Pietro is an 11-year-old city kid who visits the mountain village of Grana one summer with his mother, leaving his working father behind at home. The only other boy around is Bruno, also 11, a cow herder, but the two boys find enough common ground to become great friends over the summer. Years pass, and while Pietro’s parents continue to visit the village, the boy stops coming once he’s grown, leaving the adults to bond with Bruno. When Pietro’s father dies, he leaves his son a plot of land with a dilapidated house on it. The two old friends reunite, catch up on their lives, and agree to restore the house together, their bond sealed forever.

What follows is part rekindling, part building a new foundation for their friendship, and part inspiring the other to follow their dreams. Bruno (played as an adult by Alessandro Borghi) finds the perfect partner in their mutual friend Lara (Elisabetta Mazzullo), whom he marries and together attempts to make a cheese business that will sustain them; while Pietro (Luca Marinelli) struggles with the distance he put between himself and his parents, as well as finding his place in the world. He goes so far as to move to Nepal to find purpose, but comes back to his village in northwest Italy, where those he feels closest to still live.

Throughout their story, the men stay close because of their bond, even when they argue, go through their individual tribulations, and face the reality that their lives have not gone in the directions they’d hoped. The adaptation of the book is smart, authentic, and deeply emotional as it explores the difficult time adult males have in expressing their feelings or admitting defeat—things much easier to admit and face as kids. The older the friends get, the less their maturity seems to factor into their decision making. The film also has a few things to say about the way most people view “nature.” The village actually thrives somewhat thanks to tourists coming in to be near the wilderness, but to the friends, especially Bruno who lives there year-round, he just sees mountains and trees and wildlife, which are all very different things to him and not something that can be lumped under the label “nature.”

The film features spectacular yet melancholy landscapes that almost seem to mirror the performances from these extraordinary actors. The sweeping story tracks a relationship that has little to do with geographical distance or divergent life paths. Pietro and Bruno are pulled together by a place, and it makes them far more fragile and vulnerable than the wilderness that surrounds them most of the time. Seek this one out and savor it.

The film is now playing exclusively in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.