In one of those strange mini-zeitgeists that arrive in cinema from time to time, the last couple of years have seen multiple Belgian filmmakers make a splash at Cannes with stories of childhood friendships and animosities. First up was Laura Wandel’s Playground, following life at a primary school, then Lukas Dhont’s Close took us to the early years of teenagehood. Now Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch complete the triptych with The Eight Mountains, adapting Paolo Cognetti’s novel about a lifelong friendship in the Italian Alps that starts young but is complicated by adult life. Of the three, The Eight Mountains is undoubtedly the best, gorgeous and languorous in its exploration of the strength and limits of platonic love.
Proudly displaying its literary heritage, The Eight Mountains opens with novelistic narration from our hero Pietro (Lupo Barbiero as a kid, Luca Marinelli as an adult) as he reminisces about the first time his parents took him to their summer home in a rural Alpine village, where he would meet Bruno (Cristiano Sassella as a kid, Alessandro Borghi as an adult). Though Pietro is a city boy, he swiftly acclimatises to Bruno’s rugged rural ways, and the pair become fast and deeply close friends across a couple of summers, before a tragic overreach from Pietro’s parents, essentially attempting to adopt Bruno, drives their families apart.
These childhood scenes are just lovely, brilliantly performed by the kids and their adults – Filippo Timi is especially great, and heartbreaking, as Pietro’s dad Giovanni, who hates his city job but comes to life in the mountains, guiding Pietro and Bruno on hikes. We see each of the boys pick up the habits and tics of the other, slowly but surely becoming a unified front, making their eventual parting all the more tragic. Van Groeningen and Vandermeersch, along with their young cast, manage to capture the strange and often nonsensical *feelings* of childhood with incredible warmth and specificity.
After a slightly rote-feeling stint with Pietro as a guilelessly cruel teenager, we reunite with the boys as they reunite with each other after 15 years apart, after the death of Giovanni leaves Pietro to inherit a plot of land near Bruno’s home, upon which Bruno had once promised to build a house. And so the pair, after a bit of an awkward greeting, swiftly fall back into their previous closeness as they build the house, creating a haven for themselves and, eventually, their other friends.
From here, much of The Eight Mountains passes without much incident, even as Pietro starts taking trips to Nepal in search of something new. Yet, it rarely feels like much of a slow burn, the film using all of its ample two-and-a-half-hour runtime to deepen our relationships with these characters. Pietro and Bruno’s friendship becomes as cosy to us as it is to them; even as circumstances (be they romantic or financial) shift around them, their relationship remains uncomplicated in a way that will ring very true to life for any adults, but particularly men, who have stayed in close contact with childhood pals.
It also helps that every frame shot by DOP Ruben Impens is just beautiful to look at, the tight aspect ratio making everything very intimate without sacrificing the staggering scale of the mountain scenery. Things get especially painterly whenever anyone starts ascending to the various peaks, incredible natural vistas of grey, green, and white livened up by the pops of colour provided by the more synthetic tones of the characters’ cold-weather clothes and gear. The sweeping helicopter shots that track these hikes are magically immersive, The Eight Mountains another great entry in the fine canon of films that double as flawless ads for the Italian tourism board. The committedly gentle score and soundtrack – both provided by Daniel Norgren – tie the whole thing together, the folksy charms of the music a perfect fit for a story that is simultaneously uneventful and monumental, powered by fresh mountain air and an irresistible sense of love.