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The Eight Mountains ★★★



Directed: Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch

Cast: Luca Marinelli, Alessandro Borghi

Released: 12th May 2023

From the shaggy, thick beards of the two main protagonists to the wistful music of Daniel Norgren, there is an overriding rusticity and unassuming air to The Eight Mountains. This enchanting, rural simplicity is maintained for the film’s entire runtime by co-directors and married couple Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch, but a lack of context to the characters and a protracted runtime suffocate their first collaboration together of much of its dramatic and emotional resonance. However, The Eight Mountains still feels like a breath of fresh air, imbued with and driven by this spiritual energy inspired by nature.

Adapted from Paolo Cognetti’s novel of the same name, The Eight Mountains feels both vast and intimate – a restricted epic in the best sense. A young boy named Pietro (Lupo Barbiero) goes on holiday to a remote Alpine village, a place which is dying out and where only one child, Bruno (Cristiano Sassella), remains. The two strike up a friendship, one made up of lazy days in the sun, wrestling in fields, and mountainous treks with Pietro’s father, Giovanni (Filippo Timi). Their friendship reignites every year with each visit. After Bruno is pushed into construction work by his father, their relationship ends physically but not emotionally.

After a brief stint depicting the two boys as teenagers, The Eight Mountains settles into its main narrative. Upon his father’s death, an adult Pietro (a beguiling Luca Marinelli) returns to the village and, on his father’s wish to Bruno (as an adult, a grizzled but warm Alessandro Borghi), the pair begin building a collapsed shelter high up in the mountains. The special Italian region is the backdrop to their unique relationship, which is as much made up by unspoken moments and emotive looks as it is with words.

Despite beginning with such an assured setup, The Eight Mountains struggles to refine its characters and their relationships. A vivid, eloquent visual language doesn’t infuse into the film’s character work, with Bruno, in particular, becoming dangerously close to a blank canvas. There is the inevitable risk of such an occurrence due to Bruno’s introverted, quiet nature, but van Groeningen and Vandermeersch fail to adequately navigate his subtle complexities. Reserved characters can have meaning in films, so it is disappointing that Bruno, along with other more extroverted characters, ends up with flimsy backgrounds and almost uninteresting personalities.

With The Eight Mountains near two-and-a-half-hour runtime, this lack of characterisation becomes increasingly noticeable, and it bleeds directly into the central relationship with Pietro and Bruno. It is telling that some of the most effective moments between the two comes in the film’s earlier stages that depicts their young, preteen lives. These shortcomings never derail the film entirely, but they make the runtime feel protracted to the point of frustration. Ultimately, The Eight Mountains spiritual, existential and philosophical ambitions seem too lofty for the directors to navigate, with the film becoming stunted by its refined grandeur.

Despite these shortcomings, The Eight Mountains is, on a technical level, a sumptuous film. Ruben Impens’ divine cinematography invokes spiritualism that is lacking elsewhere; the vast mountainous regions of Italy and its flora and fauna are given relevance next to humans, sometimes even to the point of superiority. The Eight Mountains depicts the alpine area as a special place, one which holds great power for ancestors and their descendants, as well as being a home for dreams, escapism and memories. It is an evocative and powerful basis for the film, reinforced by alluring, graceful camerawork composed of slow zooms and long shots.

These soaring strengths of The Eight Mountains make its wilting weaknesses even more noticeable. Marinelli and Borghi are always mesmerising when on screen, but they are unable to break free from both their character’s stereotypes and their lack of foundations. The emotive angles of The Eight Mountains are not entirely lacking, and its ending is, true to the book and film, powerful but still strikingly reserved. For all these moments of grand eloquence and refined restraint, there are instances of frustrating ineffectiveness, resulting in a beautiful but lacking odyssey of friendship and family.

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