After breaking out internationally in 2012 with his Oscar-nominated drama The Broken Circle Breakdown, and making his Hollywood debut in 2018 with Beautiful Boy, Felix van Groeningen makes his Competition debut in Cannes with The Eight Mountains, perhaps the most understated film of his career so far.
This is a gentle tale of a decades-spanning friendship that seems a little out of its depth in such a heavyweight showcase. With terrific cinematography and two engaging leads, it’s easy on the eye — as well it should be at two hours and 27 minutes — but it’s lackluster in its telling and pales next to Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God, which covered similar themes of adolescence and young adulthood last awards season.
A French-Italian-Belgian co-production, Eight Mountains (Le Otto Montagne) might have been placed more sensitively at Venice, where it would arguably have faced less scrutiny. Regardless of festival play, however, it comes with a ready-made audience, being adapted from the 2016 bestseller by Paolo Cognetti. Admirers of the book will not be disappointed, since the film captures perfectly its charming, holiday-read essence. For newcomers, though, the script —- co-written with van Groeningen’s co-director Charlotte Vandermeesch -— is disappointingly unadventurous, padded with superfluous voice-over and montage.
The first 35 minutes would make an interesting short by itself: 11-year-old Pietro is on holiday with his mother and father in the Italian countryside, taking a break from their claustrophobic life in the city. The only other boy in the area is Bruno, almost exactly the same age and living with his aunt and uncle while his father is away laboring. Their summer together is idyllic but their friendship is ill-fated. Trying to do right by Bruno, whose only foreseeable future is in his family’s struggling cheese business, Pietro’s parents offer to take him home and put him through school. In a fit of jealousy, Bruno’s father takes the boy away, and the two won’t see each other for another decade or so.
This intro, though, is simply the foundation of a strangely bloodless buddy movie that evokes the spirit of TV’s Belle & Sebastian with its scenery and homilies. Pietro, now played by Luca Marinelli, moves back to the city, where he falls out with his family and alienates himself from his father, a paradoxical creature whose hidden extremes begin to emerge after his untimely death.
To mourn his father, Pietro returns to the family’s holiday home, where he is reunited with Bruno (Alessandro Borghi) and discovers the secret bond that has formed between his father and the country boy in his absence. Both men are now bushily bearded, and their beards will do a lot of heavy lifting over the next two hours as the subtext of boys, men and their fathers becomes the dominant discourse.
The mountain setting is breathtaking, but the spectacular views of vertiginous heights and treacherous glaciers promise a tension that never materializes. There’s little sense of conflict between man and nature, and no sense of it at all between Pietro and Bruno for what seems like an age, even after Bruno moves in on Pietro’s girlfriend. It’s not even much commented upon when Pietro gets wanderlust and trades the artless rustic simplicity of the Italian alps for the artless rustic simplicity of the Himalayas, where he finally finds inspiration, becomes a writer of some repute, and learns of the “eight mountains,” a folkloric word salad that, to paraphrase profusely, pits the experience of the traveler against the wisdom of the man who never leaves his home.
Bruno, in the meantime, is struggling, and for the first time there is a crack in their now decades-long relationship. It’s a long time to wait for such a dramatic catalyst, and it comes so late that many viewers may not make it that far. For those who make the trek, however, the subsequent unraveling is entirely of a piece with the bonding, and there’s a quiet integrity to it that’s totally in keeping with the film’s defiantly low-key ambition.
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