Actor Alessandro Borghi and directors Charlotte Vandermeersch and Felix Van Groeningen attend the Premiere of “The Eight Mountains” by Charlotte Vandermeersch and Felix Van Groeningen, an official selection of the Spotilight Program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. © 2023 Sundance Institute | photo by Becca Haydu.
By Aliese Muhonen
Though it is a story of men and mountains, The Eight Mountains is really about something rarely seen in cinema: a male friendship as deep and sweeping as the vistas it’s formed in. The film had its Sundance Festival premiere January 20 in the Spotlight category.
Shot in the stunning Aosta Valley region of the Italian Alps and closely adapted from Paolo Cognetti’s acclaimed novel, the film follows the poignant friendship between Pietro and Bruno, who meet at age 12 in the remote Italian mountain village, Grana.
Pietro is a city boy from bustling Turin, whose loving, mountain-fixated father sends him to Grana for the summer in 1984. Bruno is an independent mountain man-in-the-making, and the last child left in the village. The two hit it off immediately, exploring the natural playground around them and hiking with Pietro’s father, who treats Bruno like another son. They all look forward to Pietro’s visits in subsequent summers, until Bruno’s absentee father reappears and hauls Bruno away to work construction with him.
Over 15 years pass before the boys reconnect as men (with an amusingly awkward bonding over their beards). Pietro’s father has passed away, and bequeathed him a plot of land high above the village. But there’s a caveat: it was his father’s wish, Bruno says, that a house be built on the land.
Bruno, as it turns out, got back in touch with Pietro’s father, while Pietro (Luca Marinelli) stopped visiting the village and became estranged from his family. Bruno (Alessandro Borghi) offers his construction expertise to get the house built, and suddenly the men are back together for a summer, rebuilding a friendship and emotional refuge as sturdy as the stone and wooden house. While they try to maintain their house and bond in the years that follow, life’s inevitable twists and turns serve to strengthen and threaten their kinship.
“There’s something very beautiful and pure about those main characters and their quests and the questions they ask themselves, and how we see them wrestle with those things and find solutions and not,” says co-writer and co-director Felix van Groeningen, speaking to the audience at the post-screening Q&A.
The project was a joint effort between van Groeningen and his partner Charlotte Vandermeersch, who also co-wrote and co-directed. Though it was a long project to adapt — the two wrote the script over four months during the pandemic lockdown — it ended up being beneficial in unexpected ways.
“We were also going through a relational crisis, and this story was so beautiful to work on to put in the middle between us,” she says. “And it helped us. It helped us reflect on life and being friends and lovers and family, and he asked me to join him for the whole ride [of directing].”
The ride was a wild one, filmed on location over the course of a year. Both directors learned Italian, and the cast and crew had to weather, well… weather, and a host of other challenges during the rugged production.
“We did really build the house [in the mountains], we really shot the interiors in the house in the winter, so we had to go up there in a helicopter to shoot interiors,” says van Groeningen, laughing. “Which is crazy, and doesn’t make sense, but … we said at the start that we had to do things as real as possible. Sometimes we couldn’t get up there in helicopters, so we tried going up there in snow scooters but then it started raining so we had to abort or we couldn’t get off the mountain. Again, crazy, but it all paid off.”
For Borghi, the highlights during production were deepening his real-life friendship with Marinelli, exploring the spectacular location, and meeting author Paulo Cognetti, who lives in the same mountains.
“Every day [on location] was like discovering something new. Especially because everything was connected to the mountains. Every day we found out something different just walking on the snow or in the summer walking in 40 degrees [Celsius], we’d find something different to work on. … Paulo was our guide, especially in the physical part of the movie. When Paulo came to us asking, ‘Do you want to have a walk?’ it was like trying to kill us,” Borghi laughs. “We would be like, ‘What kind of walk?’ [He’d say,] ‘Oh, 40 minutes,’ and it’d be like six hours of walking.’”
Their hassle was worth it. The Eight Mountains received worldwide acclaim and the Jury Prize at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Like the long trek up to the house, the film’s pacing is more of a steady climb than the racing speed of most contemporary films. But it’s befitting of the subject matter and feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s an immersive experience, letting us bask in the spectacular scenery and profound questions of grief, family, love, and identity that the characters do.
Ultimately, it’s an unusual hike worth taking.