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‘The Eight Mountains’ Review: Felix Van Groeningen Finds Light and Deep Tenderness in the Italian Alps

Mount Meru, one of the tallest mountains in the world, is surrounded by eight seas and eight mountains. It is considered by many to be the center of the universe — physically, metaphysically, and spiritually. But it is probably the hardest mountain to get to, and even harder to stay on. Would you make the trip? Or would you see more by exploring its eight satellite peaks and waters? What if once you get up there, you still don’t feel complete? What will give your life meaning instead?

Pietro (Luca Marinelli at his strongest physically and most complex and tender emotionally) never stops thinking about these questions. It’s all he asks himself as he yearns for the mountains until the summer comes and he can climb the Italian Alps again, with his father – trying desperately to understand a son he can’t see himself in – and best friend, Bruno (Alessandro Borghi, this film’s hurricane heart and “Into The Wild” spiritual guide.)

The Eight Mountains” lovingly adapts Paolo Cognetti’s novel of the same name, a valentine to brotherhood and a shape-shifting tale of self-discovery, resilience, nature and love — platonic but more steely than any rock you could climb – that somehow rarely feels like it treads a single step of the endless stream of movies and literature capturing the ever-evolving yet enduring nature of all of those just mentioned things since time immemorial.

Belgian filmmaker Felix Van Groeningen goes bigger, and purer, than his previous works with the help of his life partner Charlotte Vandermeersch who, after starring in a number of her husband’s films now co-writes and co-directs alongside him. There is such affection in every frame, a levity (yet never frivolity) where “The Broken Circle Breakdown” and later “Beautiful Boy” were so stifled by the harrowing stories they were telling that it could often be hard to enjoy the light that pierced through the clouds.

You breathe so well in these mountains. Van Groeningen’s long-time cinematographer Ruben Impens (also Julia Ducournau’s favored collaborator, most recently on last year’s Palme d’Or winner “Titane”) has never done more breathtaking work: he captures the epic vastness of every mountain with dumbfounding clarity, where the visual language of the film could have so easily been flattened into a National Geographic documentarian style where voiceover is supposed to color just how alive these parts of the world make you feel.

Here, you feel it all, because there is so much heartfelt detail. Not necessarily in tactile closeups on hands over skin or insects humming in the summer grass, but in the way the light hits the vast expanse of water just right, sparkling as you float, flowing so clear until you see yourself back and have no choice but to follow where it takes you. That same care extends to the people who go up there, too, with Pietro and Bruno’s childhood so wonderfully captured in its idyllic pockets of unequivocal joy. It’s what the boys of Pixar’s “Luca” would have had in their gorgeous summer together, it’s the same childlike pleasure Elio and Oliver shared in “Call Me By Your Name” as the film took them up the mountains for just a minute, bellowing one another’s names through the clouds, before, inevitably, having to walk back down and pretend they never felt it.

These glimpses blossom into something more poignant and decisive in Pietro and Bruno’s lives in “The Eight Mountains”. A perfect childhood together (framed, still, by Bruno’s absent father and Pietro’s struggle to find satisfaction or any sense of identity) gives way to a harder decade as adults (beginning with a touching reintroduction where both men break the ice of 20 years by complimenting one another’s impressive beards) spent building, thinking, bashing, growing new roots just the two of them in order to make something they hope will outlive all the things they struggle to find faith in anymore.

You could imagine shades of “Brokeback Mountain” coming to light, but that would be doing a disservice to the strength of this friendship. It’s wholesome far beyond an often naive distillation of that word, sturdy in ways romance can sour and struggle in its fragility and volatility. It transcends the flush of that first realization of what it means to long for another person. That’s not to say we just watch two guys being dudes for two and a half hours, up and down the mountains – but their struggles are so subtle and richly portrayed, with ample time to understand and turn over the questions both desperately want answers to and the empty spaces they spend a lifetime trying to fill before even being able to formulate what they’re missing.

Silence is often filled with the songs of Daniel Norgren, the film’s composer who lends his back catalog to perfect moments of contemplation that earn the weight of the greatest mood pieces of Dire Straits, Neil Young, and, well, every other great folk songwriter of our lifetime. It somehow always just works, learning from the mistakes of the emotional if sometimes contrived soundtrack for the often emotionally manipulative “Beautiful Boy” which went from Sigur Rós to Aphex Twin to John Coltrane and back to Neil Young again while this suffering teenage boy stuck another needle in his arm again and again.

Pietro and Bruno have their own struggles – the death of Pietro’s father shakes the foundations of both boys’ lives, as Pietro searches for a man he doesn’t know how to become and Bruno mourns the parent he always wished was his, while financial worries begrudgingly tether Bruno and his wife (Pietro’s friend Lara, a neat subplot) and daughter to a world below he never wanted. Marinelli is our narrator and anchor, lending the film a sometimes excessively literary quality with the embrace of many of Cognetti’s most lyrical turns of phrase, teetering on the edge of sentimentality without ever quite freefalling. Pietro wanders the eight mountains and beyond, finding a new home and purpose in Nepal before returning to save Bruno from himself.

But as Lara gently tries to tell Pietro, you cannot help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. And sometimes, as Bruno tells Pietro, it’s just impossible to actually, fully, take care of another person at all. Perhaps that’s why he, we, need the mountains, the grass, the streams and the stones and the snow. Ever-evolving as the seasons change and years pass, yet with the eternal promise they will return. It would feel cheesy if it wasn’t so undeniable. There is, of course, a biting and knowing irony of two urban filmmakers making another “Wild” about finding yourself up and out there, embracing nature when you don’t understand it and rejecting it when it’s all you have left. But there is so much more at play – in the physical beauty of all things that serves a life-defining purpose, the companionship that pushes and pulls you as the years go on and the cycle continues.

Because in spite of Bruno’s stubbornness to remain, and the peace that he finds in those moments of solitude in the mountains, the one truth that remains through it all is Pietro. The life that, through it all, they still have shared. Ricocheting around the world and watering the seeds they planted until they, like all things, wither and die. There is still, by the end, the hope that growth is eternal, the gratitude that this friendship weathers it all. Even when that’s gone too. Because even when the sun has set, so many times, it will always rise again.

Grade: B+

“The Eight Mountains” world premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in competition. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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