About twenty minutes into Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch’s The Eight Mountains (Le otto montagne), a father, Giovanni, is hiking up a glacier with his son Pietro and Pietro’s friend Bruno. Giovanni and Bruno both make a risky jump across an icy crevice, and Pietro suffers a bout of altitude sickness – his breathing rushes, he grows overwhelmed, and he has a sudden dizzy spell.
To experience The Eight Mountains is something like that dizziness – it is a cyclical, philosophically weighted film following two friends throughout the years, magnifying their unique outlooks and shortcomings. It is a swirl of emotions, reflections, and self-doubt, and forces the viewer to examine their own life, relationships, and legacy.
Its vast alpine landscape creates open spaces that promise liberation, though that escape from society into nature can shift from an expression of freedom to one of isolation. This openness is also a physical manifestation of the characters’ emotional void, of memories and experiences lost and yearned for.
Much of the story is set in the Alps, specifically the tiny town of Grana in the Piemonte region, and its surrounding mountains. The kickoff to the narrative is that a family of three, with father Giovanni, mother Francesca, and son Pietro, who all live in Torino most of the year, and this year rents a summer home in Grana. Giovanni loves to get away into nature, go on hikes and mountain climb; the summer getaways in the countryside are a welcome reprieve from the honking horns and gridlock routine of the big city.
By chance, Pietro meets Bruno, a local boy around his age, and the two become fast friends – exploring the area, swimming in the lake, spending the idyllic summer together. Giovanni and Francesca encourage and almost seem relieved by this friendship, inviting Bruno on hikes and even proposing that he move in with them and attend school with Pietro.
Throughout the film – Giovanni hiking with Pietro, Pietro exploring with his new friend Bruno, Pietro and Bruno as adults, up through Pietro leaving the mountains for the last time – the geographic landscape is one of vast openness. The characters are typically set lower in the frame, layered by a depth of field expanding to the surrounding vistas, topped with clear skies above. The physical landscape and the characters’ space within it reflects an infinite, unburdened freedom afforded only to those in the countryside.
Each man – Giovanni, then as adults, Pietro and Bruno – is able to find something through this open space. Giovanni tells his son that the world follows an order of season of dark, followed by season of light. The daily grind of their life in Torino is a necessary evil, worth waiting out for the good that lies ahead, out in the wilderness in a true paradise. Bruno, originally from Grana, is forced by his father to leave and work – but as an adult returns back, reclaiming what he believes is his destiny, following his ancestors’ path as a casaro (cheesemaker) and montanaro (mountain man). Working abroad with his father gives him a chance to see the world, but Bruno’s original home is where he should stay. And Pietro, upon the loss of his father, visits his mother, but quickly moves on to return to Grana and the mountains. As a teenager, Pietro has a falling out with his father, and the two don’t speak for the final decade of Giovanni’s life. With his father suddenly gone, Pietro’s return to a place so special to his father becomes a step to heal and to reconnect with the man he turned away from.
Pietro’s return, and reunion with Bruno, unlocks a new chapter between these childhood best friends. Bruno shares that upon Pietro’s falling-out with his father, Giovanni and Francesca became like surrogate parents for Bruno, whose own father has abandoned him. He takes Pietro to a site up in the mountains where Giovanni dreamed to one day build a cabin, in a setting that means so much to him. The two work together to build the cabin over the course of the summer, allowing Bruno fulfill Giovanni’s last wish, while Pietro, whose adult life has thus-far been directionless, finds real meaning in the task before him. The freedom – not just of space, but from being away from obligations and the city, allows them the emotional catharsis to process their loss.
As time goes on, the two embark on the next chapters of their life – Bruno as a father, Pietro as a writer and moving to Nepal. With new responsibility and purpose outside their time spent together, the idea of the mountaintop cabin becomes less of a liberating space and more of an unrealistic dream. Bad business forces Bruno and his partner Lara to sell their alpeggio (pasture), and she and their daughter venture down to stay with her parents – while Bruno goes back to the cabin. Even as his life has changed course, he insists he is a montanaro (mountain man), and that’s where he’s meant to be.
Pietro recalls a conversation from his time in Nepal, where a man tells him that the world is a circle, with eight mountains and eight seas all surrounding one mountain, the largest. The fundamental question presented is: who has learned more, he who climbs the highest mountain, or he who climbs the eight mountains around the world?
The implication of course is that Bruno has stayed put, on his solo mountain, while Pietro has gone out, to travel and see what else the world has to offer. Pietro even says later, in voice-over narration, that it’s impossible to return to one’s own mountain – all anyone can do is to wander the other eight.
He and Pietro butt heads about Bruno staying on the mountain, when Lara and their daughter leave, as Pietro can’t understand Bruno’s stance on this – when Bruno apologizes, he smiles and asks that Pietro not worry about him. The two bid farewell, and Pietro trudges down the mountain, as the camera gradually pans out wider and wider, Pietro in motion and the snow-covered cabin growing smaller within the frame, becoming mere specs in the vast whiteness of the Alps. The framing of this image contrasts what has come before, as the cabins sinks deeper within the center of the shot, rather than staged at the bottom with depth of field ahead and skies above. What was once room and air on the horizon has become an overwhelming, inescapable mass.
In this moment, drowning in the scope of space paired by the emotional tension between the two friends, the Alpine setting suddenly shifts from one of freedom to one of isolation. Determined to stay here, away from family and turning his back on the world, in favor of what he believes to be his true self, Bruno is choosing death, however dignified and on his own terms. His way of life and philosophy has become incongruous with the modern world, and the cabin is his way to escape from it, however isolating it may be.
The empty spaces of The Eight Mountains also reflect an emotional state – they are a void to be filled, an emptiness weighted by something missing.
As an adult, Pietro recalls his father Giovanni as almost two different people: the everyday city version, with a short temperament, stressed out, and his mountain self, calm, at ease, where his joy from nature makes up for what’s lacking in his day-to-day life. Giovanni even indirectly refers to life in Torino as a season of darkness, implying that Grana and the mountains are the light he has to look forward to.
The empty space atop the mountains reaches an emotional climax when Pietro, as an adult, uncovers a metal box, buried along a hiking trail alongside a cross. Within the box he finds a notebook, written by his father, journaling different times he’s passed this way before – with Pietro as a boy, looking forward to more adventures ahead in the future – then with Bruno, later in life when Pietro goes on his own path, and his parents become like surrogates for Bruno. Pietro doesn’t seem jealous or resentful that his role as son is all but filled, but there’s a sudden pinch of experiences lost, memories unclaimed by him that belong to someone else. Much of his adult life is aimless, and he has become estranged from his father – there’s a gap missing, a void left of where he could have built a meaningful, lasting connection with Giovanni.
The Eight Mountains is a philosophically complex story, transforming an untamed terrain into a land of liberation and isolation, of recovery and reflection. Much as Pietro and Bruno return to Grana and the countryside, year after year, this is a film we will continue to revisit, each time with older eyes and broader perspective, as an ever-richer tapestry of memory and space.