Mountains are not formed in an instant. Tectonic plates may buckle like the crumpling hoods of crashing cars, but it’s a collision that takes thousands of millennia to play out, and on a human timescale, seems infinitesimally slow. An inch here, a millimeter there, even the most imposing ranges were built in increments; rocky peaks rising pebble by pebble. It’s just one way that the vast, vertiginous landscapes of northwestern Italy so well suit Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch’s quietly magnificent “The Eight Mountains”: The film, too, is a slow, gradual accretion of detail that builds to a spectacular vista across the ridges and troughs, the spires and valleys of a lifelong, life-defining friendship.
Based on the award-winning Italian bestseller “Le Otto Montagne” by Paolo Cognetti, the movie is novelistic in the best sense. It immerses you in the world of its characters – both human and Alpine – on that chimingly deep level that usually only literature can access. But it lives and breathes in beautifully cinematic terms, with each one of Ruben Impens’ stunning academy-ratio pictures worth a thousand words. Although this classic bildungsroman may have been nipped and tucked in the transition from page to screen, in terms of scale and sweep and emotion, little appears to have been lost in translation.
The narration — so often a crutch that book-to-film adaptations rely on too heavily — is sparing. Back in the city after an endless childhood summer, Pietro (Luca Marinelli) remembers how his “legs forgot their nettle-stings”; later he notes how his mother was “used to living among silent men.” This verbal language shares with the visual language an unassuming, direct kind of poetry. It also establishes the elegiac tone, with its rueful past tense, and the lovely, bluesy folk songs from Swedish singer-songwriter Daniel Norgren that provide the film’s only soundtrack, hinting from the start that for whatever reason, this story has already ended, and is being told from the far side.
It’s the spreading tale of a friendship that begins one mid-’80s summer, when city kid Pietro (played as a child by Lupo Barbiero) comes with his mother on vacation to Grana, a tiny fading hamlet nestled under the crushing, snow-capped immensity of the nearby Alps. He meets Bruno (Cristiano Sassella), the self-described “last child in the village,” and through herding cows and clambering on rocks and splashing in clear mountain lakes, the two 11-year-olds bond quickly, despite radical differences in background and temperament. It’s not just quiet, polite Pietro who becomes fiercely attached to sturdy, capable Bruno. Once Pietro’s blustery factory-manager father (Filippo Timi) arrives to indulge his passion for mountaineering, the boy’s parents both take to Bruno too, so much so they offer to bring him back to Turin with them for schooling.
Pietro is outraged that his country playmate might become citified and middle-class, like himself: “You’ll ruin him!” he yells. Bruno, however, is tempted to see what the world is like outside his rustic universe. But fate has other plans, and when Pietro (now Marinelli) and Bruno (now Alessandro Borghi) reconnect years later, Bruno has given himself over entirely to life on the mountain. “It is only you city people who call it ‘nature,'” he scoffs, observing Pietro’s friends’ tendency to romanticize the landscape into abstraction. For a time his practical rootedness among the stones and paths and trees becomes a steadying influence on his more restless, rootless friend. But then Pietro ventures further out into the world, eventually finding a new home in not-exactly-flat Nepal, while Bruno’s life contracts around him and the mountain he cannot leave. Their fortunes slowly reverse.
Mountains lend themselves to easy metaphors. But the symmetries that Van Groeningen — director of the eviscerating “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” here co-directing with partner and collaborator Vandermeersch — find in this decades-long sprawl are gentle and unforced. A mention of the Tibetan sky burial ritual echoes later on; twice, a life-and-death moment is relayed in the prosaic detail of hazard lights blinking on a car pulled in to the side of the road. And while it is true that the womenfolk — Bruno’s no-nonsense girlfriend (Elisabetta Mazzullo), Pietro’s dark-eyed mother (Elena Lietti) — are peripheral at best, it’s surprising how little that paucity matters given the richness of the central male relationships and the unusual degree of sincere, singleminded sensitivity with which they are portrayed.
There’s an easy, flinty chemistry between Marinelli and Borghi, which is especially interesting given each is somewhat counterintuitively cast in a role for which the other might seem a more obvious choice. Indeed, the physical resemblance of the younger actors to their adult opposites suggests the casting may have been the other way round at some point. If so, the change is inspired, given the wonderful subtlety Marinelli brings to the role of Pietro, so different from his eye-catching turn in “Martin Eden.” Here, he’s the soulful, uncertain, meandering yin to Borghi’s compact, practical yang. Their moments of connection are moving in their understatement, as when adult Bruno calls adult Pietro by his childhood nickname for the first time, across the roof slates of the hut they’re building in quixotic remembrance of the latter’s father.
In the Grana dialect, Bruno says, the phrase “it seems long” communicates a feeling of sadness. “The Eight Mountains,” at nearly two-and-a-half hours, is long and it is often sad. But it is also joyful and grateful and wise, with an emotional heft that mounds in the middle, after the jagged incline of Bruno and Pietro’s youth, peaking at their reunion and then, with many a backward glance, embarking at a more languid, thoughtful pace on the long journey home. Stately and serene from a distance, but up close riven with the fissures and follies of a friendship that costs both men so much but gives them even more, the movie, too, is a mountain.