An early draft of this review was originally published on September 14, 2023,
at Give Me Some Light on Substack, months before it appeared here.
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I continue to believe that much of Peter Jackson’s success with his film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings had to do with how enthralled audiences were with seeing the glory of New Zealand — those mountains, those panoramic wildernesses — projected on such a grand canvas. The more our attention is absorbed by screens, the more we tend to be creatures of indoor-habit, and the more we long for what we’re missing: the created world in its sensual, ancient, awe-inspiring glory.

That is, no doubt, why I added The Eight Mountains to my must-see list the first time I saw the trailer. And that will remain, most likely, the thing I cherish most about the experience.

The Italian Alps — the backdrop for The Eight Mountains. To quote Liz Lemon: “I want to go to there.” [Image from the Picturehouse trailer.]

Somehow I’ve missed both of the previous films by director Felix van Groeningen — Beautiful Boy, a reportedly harrowing drug-addiction drama about a father (Steve Carrell) and son (Timothée Chalamet), and The Broken Circle Breakdown, the story of a rocky romance between Belgian bluegrass musicians. The latter was co-directed by Charlotte Vandermeersch, and the two have collaborated again here on this adaptation of a novel by Paolo Cognetti: an epic story of a friendship that began in childhood and remains strained but strangely unbreakable over their courses of their troubled lives.

The Eight Mountains is several things at once:

  • a celebration of the Italian Alps, ruggedly glorious landscapes that deserve long, slow, panoramic attention;
  • a study of how men tend to live lives either inspired by their fathers, wounded by their fathers, intimidated by them, or longing to fill the voids that they left; and
  • a philosophical meditation on two ways to live life—by devoting oneself to a singular place and passion, or by following questions far and wide.

As it begins, eleven-year-old Pietro, the son of a Turin-based engineer, spends a summer with his mother in a rental in Grana in the Italian Alps, and there he meets Bruno, the one remaining child in a slowly disappearing mountain village. While the city boy is enchanted by the village boy’s raw, rough, aggressive demeanor, and while he delights in how happy this lonely stranger seems to be to have a friend, their relationship is quickly complicated: Pietro’s mother wants to help the boy socialize and find opportunities away from his grim situation at home. And Pietro’s distant, difficult, hyper-masculine father embraces Bruno as the kind of son that he wishes Pietro would be.

Bruno (Alessandro Borghi) and Pietro (Luca Marinelli) make their way to the construction site where they’re building a house and reinforcing their friendship. [Image from the Picturehouse trailer.]

How can Pietro find peace as Bruno’s soul mate if his friend only worsens his sense of insecurity and insufficiency around his own father?

One of the film’s strengths is how convincingly it tracks both Pietro and Bruno over many years. They are played in childhood, late teens, and then adulthood by three sets of actors — child-actors Lupo Barbiero and Cristiano Sassella, then Andrea Palma and Francesco Palombelli, and finally Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi. And all of these actors are excellent choices. We believe the time-shifts without trouble, a feat rarely achieved in films that cover such large spans of time. (I still feel like I’m shut of out of the near-universal enthusiasm for the Oscar-winning Moonlight because the differences between the actors playing the central character were so jarringly distracting.)

I was drawn in to The Eight Mountains early, just as I was with a thematically similar Belgian feature — Lukas Dhont’s Close — at the beginning of this year. Cinema is a world in which artists and audiences alike seem perpetually uncomfortable with the subject of male friendship. Don’t get me wrong: We need movies like Brokeback Mountain. But it’s as though the medium has become so hyper-sexualized that we don’t know how to focus on anything but eroticism when two bodies share screen space together for a prolonged period. I still get headaches recalling how so many moviegoer conversations about The Lord of the Rings devolved into arguments about whether Frodo and Sam were gay, or whether it wouldn’t have been better to re-imagine Samwise as female so we could scratch our insatiable itch for romantic subplots.

Pietro (Lupo Barbiero) and Bruno (Cristiano Sassella) — boys discovering themselves and each other far from the reach of their fathers’ influence. [Image from the Picturehouse trailer.]

In her review, New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis notes, “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.” But she cannot help but give the next several lines to wondering about the “expressly erotic dimension [of] the men’s love for each other,” and explicitly speculating, “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.” Is this tangent really necessary? Did I miss something — or is there no suggestion whatsoever, however subtle, that their friendship takes such a turn?

At the mid-century mark, I can look back at dozens of substantial friendships that have lasted decades with men and women alike — and these stories include all kinds of outdoor adventures and camping trips — that have been healthy and meaningful while remaining responsibly and effortlessly platonic. Storytellers, particularly in television and movies, seem to lack imagination, discipline, and curiosity on this subject, and I’m sure that has a significant ripple effect on real-world behaviors. Maybe sexual harassment and assault would be rarer if we grew up attending to stories about the possibility of, and the rich rewards of, intimate and yet platonic friendships… I don’t know. Is my experience so rare? What a miserable life it must be for people who cannot enjoy friendships without being tormented by the question of “Will we or won’t we?”

Bruno and Pietro venture into the wild. Can we camp with them in the wilderness without getting sidetracked by the Brokeback Mountain question of “Will they or won’t they?” [Image from the Picturehouse trailer.]

Anyway, I would have been disappointed if van Groeningen and Vandermeersch had given in to such a familiar and predictable storyline and lost the film’s distinctive focus on the ways in which fathers — either present or absent, loving or difficult — shape their sons and influence how those boys will relate to other boys. That is, for me, the most interesting thread of the film, so much so that I sometimes struggled to stick with the movie as the fathers faded into the spectacular backgrounds.

And those landscapes really are awe-inspiring. I’m always down for some stunning panoramic cinematography of mountains, forests, rocks, streams, and glaciers, but there is an out-of-time quality to these that made them almost frightening to gaze upon. (This is true even though I missed the film’s brief theatrical release and ended up watching it at home on a computer monitor.) Note: I’m trying hard not to talk about the film’s reverent attention to “nature,” since one of the film’s characters scoffs at those who use that term.

Nevertheless, the strongest impression that lingers with me after the film’s 2-hour and 27-minute running time is one of frustration. And there are several causes of that.

On the room of the house, looking up at the rooftops of the world — Bruno and Pietro invest in a world apart from the compromises of civilization. [Image from the Picturehouse trailer.]

One of them is the film’s score by Swedish singer-songwriter Daniel Norgren. The music is, at times, subtle and unsettling, and at its best when it’s nothing more than a primal pulse that seems to emanate from the mountains themselves. But too often Norgren weaves in songs from his own pre-existing work, which seem somewhat intrusive and overbearing, spelling sentiments out in the lyrics that seem to narrow the film’s focus instead of enhancing it. What’s more, they kept distracting me with their English-language lyrics that seemed incongruous with what was happening in the foreground, and with how consistently they reminded me of other bands: Fleet Foxes, My Morning Jacket, The Lumineers… you know the type. It felt like music I would hear playing in REI, Eddie Bauer, or other stores that strive to make men comfortable while they shop for hiking boots, beard trimmers, or trail mix.

Sometimes, voice-over narration is necessary for storytelling that sprawls as much as this does, but I found the script for this uninspired and a bit too quick to sum up insights for us when we might be drawing our own conclusions.

Pietro sounds his “barbaric yawp.” Walt Whitman would be pleased. [Image from the Picturehouse trailer.]

Another problem is how the film’s more mystical leanings surge in the final minutes in a way that seems to romanticize and glorify choices that seem, to me anyway, to be evidence of mental illness or spiritual despair. The Eight Mountains is in rich, rewarding territory when it is digging into questions about the precarious balance between being a part of “the wild” and part of civilization, questions that made Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy and Sean Penn’s Into the Wild compelling. It seems at first to be earnestly interested in how a certain brawny ideal of masculinity can become dangerously seductive. But in the end, I just don’t think the film finds much fresh or interesting to offer on that subject. And it gives in, finally, to the alluring mystique of Bruno, granting him a kind of mythic status as an independent mountain man-god.

Finally, as beautiful as all of those jagged horizons can be, there’s a difference between photographing the wonders of “nature” (okay, I said it) and making something of it. Ruben Impens’ photography remains disappointingly practical. What we see is either advancing the story or providing lush scenic interludes, but only the formidable glacier takes on any poetic significance.

Bruno answers Pietro’s distant call. [Image from the Picturehouse trailer.]

I don’t want to discourage audiences from seeking out The Eight Mountains. There’s enough remarkable about it that it could inspire some meaningful conversations. I’ll be seeing these mountainscapes when I close my eyes for a long time to come. And, again, I’m grateful to have another substantial entry in that neglected genre of films about male friendships. But I think this film would serve us best if we considered it in a conversation that also includes other films with overlapping themes — like A River Runs Through It, for example, which explores some similar territory and, in my opinion, does so with greater insight.