The Eight Mountains is a Testament to the Directors’ Commitment to the Story
Elissa Suh on the New Film Adaptation of Paolo Cognetti’s Award-Winning Novel
The Eight Mountains is a skilled adaptation of Paolo Cognetti’s 2016 novel that adheres strictly to both the book’s tone and the author’s intent, with nary the kind of adjustments that might anger devoted readers. Filmmaker Felix van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown) and actress Charlotte Vandermeersch, in her directorial debut, skillfully translate the lauded book, winner of Italy’s Strega Prize and Frances’ Prix Médicis étranger, evocatively relating the power of landscape and memory.
Clocking in at just over 200 pages, Cognetti’s novel is a slender but emotionally expansive bildungsroman about the decades-long friendship between Pietro and Bruno, who meet as young boys. The film adaptation, composed of gestures and impressions set against lofty backdrops, feels similarly intimate yet epic in scope. Cinematographer Ruben Impisn’s Academy ratio accentuates this dichotomy—the squared-off frames don’t truncate the vertiginous beauty of the mountains so much as lend them the weight of nostalgia and hindsight. The film’s runtime (nearly two and a half hours long) is a testament to the directors’ thorough commitment to the story, covering wide swaths of time and allowing the sensitive masculine friendship at its center to bloom accordingly.
The tale begins when Pietro (Lupo Barbiero) meets Bruno (Cristiano Sassella), a local son of cowherders, while vacationing with his parents in the provincial village of Grana. Their kinship and connection—sweetly rollicking through the fields and splashing in the river—is immediately apparent, as are their differences. As the last boy in the moribund town, located at the base of the Italian Alps, Bruno suffers a lack of schooling and an absent father. Pietro’s father, Gianni (Filippo Timi), on the other hand, is present but emotionally distant. He takes Pietro mountain climbing, and on these peaks Pietro comes to see his hardworking factory-man patriarch in a slightly more sympathetic light. Projecting the right balance of sternness couched in care, Timi makes an impression with his few scenes.
The final events culminate into a parable about the reverberating significance of seemingly small events, and the limits and liberating qualities of nature.
Bruno and Pietro’s lives take them in different directions, and later Pietro and his father become estranged, while Bruno becomes a sort of surrogate son to Gianni. Taking place mostly during their adulthood, The Eight Mountains unfolds diligently and patiently, accentuating the classicism of Cognetti’s humble prose, evocative but never flowery. As the older Pietro, Luca Marinelli is as soft and warm here as he was cold and rigid in Martin Eden. His shepherding voiceovers feel appropriate, not just because they bolster the film’s literary origins, but because the novel itself eschews showing, preferring to tell us everything through this withdrawn man’s frank first-person musings.
The death of Pietro’s father reveals an inheritance: a small ramshackle property on the side of a mountain cliff north of Grana. The tragedy reunites the boys, now men, who rebuild the house, dismantled by the snowfall, along with their interrupted friendship. Bruno and Pietro fall comfortably into each other’s presence and habits, as if they were slipping into old coats. Although van Groeningen and Vandermeersch have said they approached the film as a love story, The Eight Mountains steers clear of any homoerotic subtext that one may or may not extrapolate from the book. On meeting Bruno, Pietro says, “But that day I had felt something, an unexpected sense of intimacy that both attracted and frightened me, like an opening into unknown territory. To calm myself I sought for a mental image. I thought of the river…”
The film contains fewer climbing scenes than one might expect, but the majestic grandeur of the peaks we glimpse are enough.
As coolly guarded men of few words, these taciturn characters can feel faintly abstract in the film. Apart from recounting his thoughts via voiceover, Pietro can feel distant, perhaps appropriately so; his name, after all, means “rock.” But contemplativeness is a difficult thing to portray on screen, and while Marinelli is a soulful and arresting performer, his placidness can come across as opaqueness.
With his stoic charisma, Bruno, described as someone with “a certain integrity and purity” in the book, becomes by default the more engaging character, as viewers (along with Pietro) marvel at this strange solitary being wedded to the agrarian landscapes. (“There was something absolute about Bruno that always fascinated me.”) This tension is one of the film’s animating forces, and Alessandro Borghi as Bruno exudes this keen authenticity, an oafish mysticism, like Peter Saarsgaard playing a mountain man.
Fortunes reverse as the two traverse ups and downs. Given his love of high peaks, Pietro is inevitably drawn toward Nepal, while Bruno becomes a cheesemaker and starts a family. Favoring the metaphors of mountaineering more than the sport itself, the script thankfully excises the detailed practicalities and how-tos of scaling a mountain found in the text. In fact, the film contains fewer climbing scenes than one might expect, but the majestic grandeur of the peaks we glimpse are enough: cumulus halos dotting the sky below, puffs of cream just beyond arm’s reach.
Given the film’s subject matter, a dose of sentimentalism is inescapable, and the movie mostly avoids becoming maudlin. The filmmakers only overplay their hand when it comes to the music: a number of folksy songs by Daniel Norgren offer some levity and pep but tip the film a little too much toward whimsy. (The musical choices are nowhere as maddening as the rude placements of Neil Young and others in van Groeningen’s previous feature Beautiful Boy.)
Whereas the book unfolds as a steady journey, the film allocates its drama to the last quarter, with the bulk of the conflict quickly unraveling in the final 30 minutes, as if the filmmakers or studio were pressured to play up the drama last-minute. The final events culminate into a parable about the reverberating significance of seemingly small events, and the limits and liberating qualities of nature—themes which are wholesome but not naive, uncomplicated but mature. The Eight Mountains isn’t a happy tale per se, so much as one of forlorn contemplation that boldly looks forward.