In the 1980s, during a summer break to a remote village in the Italian Alps, Pietro forges a lifelong friendship with the only other boy among the settlement’s dwindling population. Taking place over decades, husband-wife team Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch’s The Eight Mountains is a gorgeously-told fable of platonic love, as moving as it is epic.
Where The Eight Mountains is van Groeningen’s eighth film as director, it is Vandermeersch’s first (Vandermeersch previously collaborated with van Groeningen on Belgica as an actor and The Broken Circle Breakdown as writer). It’s an apposite pairing that leads to some nice thematic synchronicity, but the more direct triumph here is simply the unified voice with which their film speaks to us.
The Eight Mountains is narrated by the adult Pietro (Luca Marinelli), who tells us of the first summer he spent in the village, a place emptied out by economic necessity, where all but one of the children are gone. Heightened by the voiceover narration, the romance and the whimsy are almost fairytale-like; fables of summers spent in the bucolic countryside, in a magic village with only one child. In less assured hands, such sweetness might threaten to turn sickly, but van Groeningen and Vandermeersch, alongside co-writer Paolo Cognetti, are careful the balance the rose-tints of memory against the sober knowledge of the present.
Beneath the nostalgia of memory there is the narrator’s knowledge of things to come, but also of an adult’s recontextualised understanding of the past. To the young Pietro (Lupo Barbiero), the holiday village represents little more than an escape from the “stinking city” of Turin, but as adult viewers, we see a place in decline, wrecked by modernisation. As an adult, Pietro’s companion, Bruno (Alessandro Borghi) will tell Pietro’s fancy city friends that they can only understand his home in the abstract, but as a boy – played by Cristiano Sasello – he is already aware of the separate worlds that the boys inhabit, declaring to the mountains, “I’m Bruno Guglielmina and I’m getting out of here”, already knowing that he never will.
Indeed, although The Eight Mountains is a deeply romantic (as well as Romantic in the late-eighteenth century sense), film its boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio emphasises the tremendous height of the mountain ranges over their panoramic splendour, resisting the sentimental beauty that a wider frame might encourage. This land may well seem beautiful, but it is a place of work and hardship, where winter brings 20 foot snowdrifts and where houses stand derelict. As an adult, Bruno well understands the sublimity of his mountains.
Most of the story takes place during the boys’ adulthood, but like a fairytale, their twinned fates are written in their childhoods. Yet there is an emotional immediacy to the The Eight Mountains that grounds its fabular in reality. Its observations on platonic masculine love, and on the way that childhood friendships somehow sustain in ways that those forged in adulthood rarely do is tenderly drawn and profoundly moving. Both boys’ issues with their fathers informs a central tenet their friendship, which is connected to the bonding nature of work in the film’s thematic peak, the construction of the house that Pietro’s father never managed.
In its presentation, its romance and Romanticism, its nostalgia and regret, The Eight Mountains conjures a sense of timelessness, of a fable that resonates. Its social reality – that of the emptying and decline of rural regions in Italy – is contemporary and vital, but there is something deeper and simpler at play here. In that simplicity, with its notes played purely, there is no need of distortion or abstraction to justify itself.