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The Trail Not Taken

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The Eight Mountains (2023)

“The Eight Mountains” is an adaptation of an Italian coming-of-age novel by Paolo Cognetti, who himself attended film school but whose only contribution here apart from the source material is a cameo role. Instead, the adaptation and directing duties inexplicably have gone to a pair of Belgians: Felix van Groeningen, best known on these shores as the director of “Beautiful Boy” starring Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet, and Charlotte Vandermeersch, an actress with an extensive resume in Belgian TV. Though la Belgique is nowhere near les Alpes, the filmmakers do a good job of conveying an overall literary aura. Still, it’s hard to argue this should not have been a miniseries instead.

It centers on Pietro (Lupo Barbiero), who is 11 in 1984 when the story commences. Each year he and his mother (Elena Lietti) leave Turin to pass the summer vacation in Grana Valley. The father (Filippo Timi) stays behind for the most part due to his job, though occasionally he drops by to hike the range with Pietro tagging along. Pietro becomes fast friends with Bruno (Cristiano Sassella), the lone child remaining in the village who happens to be the same age. Bruno’s father works abroad as a bricklayer, leaving him in the care of his aunt and uncle on whose farm he toils.

The story tracks Pietro and Bruno’s friendship all the way into adulthood. We see only snippets of Pietro’s city life before the narrative of their comradery picks up again. Teenage Pietro (Andrea Palma) no longer wishes to take part in the mountain treks, failing to appreciate these as his father’s attempts at bonding. Pietro also isn’t thrilled about his parents’ idea for Bruno (Francesco Palombelli) to join them in the city in order to acquire a proper education, a plan Bruno’s father ultimately vetoes but which nevertheless leads to the boys’ falling out. More than a decade later when Pietro’s father dies, he leaves behind a plot in the Alpine village with ruins of a cabin which he has intended for Bruno to fix up. Now young men, Pietro (Luca Marinelli) and Bruno (Alessandro Borghi) work together to rehabilitate the property and mend their friendship.

“The Eight Mountains” unfurls the years at a languorous pace, so it embodies a certain novelistic quality that honors the source material. But this medium has its inherent limitations. The story covers so much ground that a myriad of details barely register, such as Pietro’s time in the city as a child and his travels as an adult. The same goes for his relationship with the parents. While this approach amply depicts how Pietro and his often-absent father drift apart, it doesn’t explain why we see even less of Pietro’s mother who is supposedly around through his formative years. Even Bruno feels more like a segue into various anecdotes than a full-fledged character. The central friendship is mostly a blur. We don’t know how Pietro feels when Lara (Elisabetta Mazzullo), the female guest he brings along one summer, opts to stay there with Bruno instead of returning to the city. If it weren’t for the voiceover narration, we would never get a sense of what Pietro makes of his dad, his charmed life vis-à-vis Bruno’s hardscrabble one, the significance of his relationships with them and the titular mountains, and his travels in the Far East. Even at two hours and 27 minutes, it feels as though the film has run out of time to get its point across and is relying on this shorthand to convey Pietro’s introspection.

The Alps provide a spectacular backdrop as one would expect, so it’s a bit baffling that Mr. van Groeningen and Ms. Vandermeersch have decided to shoot the film in the Academy ratio. The choice does create a sense of intimacy against the expansive scenery, though it also screams prestige TV.

Ultimately the film encapsulates the scope and the message of Mr. Cognetti’s work, but leaves Pietro and Bruno’s feelings for each other unexplained. It’s possible that as cishet men they are indeed incapable of communicating affection and intimacy, but “The Eight Mountains” certainly would be much richer if it were to make a real effort to explore the mechanics and nuances of platonic male bonding.


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