“The Eight Mountains” Is Not a Movie So Much as a Series of Postcards

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“The Eight Mountains” Is Not a Movie So Much as a Series of Postcards

There’s just enough information in the hundred and forty-seven minutes of “The Eight Mountains” to fill a short film, enough audiovisual variety to pack a booklet of picture postcards, and enough emotional range to fit a trailer. My definition of a slow movie isn’t that it’s slow of action but slow of thought; some movies with spare drama and long, static takes offer an invigorating onrush of ideas, whereas “The Eight Mountains” is not only slow in its action and in its succession of images but also nearly devoid of ideas or, at least, of their expression. On the other hand, its style and its dramatic sense do indeed reflect a concept—about movies, the world, and their connection—that’s as dispiriting as the aesthetic itself.

The movie, based on a novel of the same title by Paolo Cognetti, is the story of a lifelong friendship between two men, Pietro and Bruno, who meet as eleven-year-olds, in the summer of 1984. Pietro is from the city of Turin; his mother is a teacher, his father is an engineer, and the family rents a house in a village in the Italian Alps that summer; there, Bruno is literally the only other child. The bookish Pietro roams the countryside with Bruno, who knows the landscape intimately. Bruno wants to be a cheesemaker; he’s bright but academically unfocussed, and, despite Pietro’s parents’ efforts to help, Bruno begins life as a laborer at the age of thirteen. The boys lose touch; Pietro, temperamentally a wanderer and emotionally a searcher, breaks with his family. Only at the age of thirty-one does Pietro reconnect with Bruno. Under the skilled craftsman Bruno’s guidance, they rebuild a dilapidated mountain cabin that Pietro’s father had bought, and it becomes their house of friendship, of annual reunions. Bruno pursues a career as a cheesemaker, Pietro becomes a writer—it’s clear enough that the voice-over narration he provides is, in effect, his writing about the friendship—and their adult lives both tighten their bonds and impose painful separations.

The first rule of Film Club is that there are no rules, but there are habits, and the directors of “The Eight Mountains,” Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch, display one of the worst of them: silencing the uneducated. The movie’s dialogue is almost entirely limited to what advances the plot; there’s hardly any conversation that merely reflects what the characters think, an omission all the more grievous inasmuch as the urbanite, the putative intellectual, is the narrator, the central consciousness, the city mouse from whose perspective, almost entirely, the country mouse is seen and heard. They hardly talk even as children. When Bruno’s potential move to the city with Pietro’s family—a subject of great moment—comes up, the scene between Bruno (played as a child by Cristiano Sassella) and Pietro (Lupo Barbiero) is truncated to almost nothing, cutting away just as they begin to talk.

Yet what little Bruno says, when the movie gives him a chance to speak, is substantial and memorable, and stands in depressing contrast to the filmmakers’ self-imposed rule of index-card plot-point dialogue. By far the best scene in the film is one in which the adult Pietro (Luca Marinelli) brings a trio of Turin friends to the mountains; in response to their rapturous enthusiasm for “nature,” Bruno (Alessandro Borghi) explains that the people who live in the mountains never use that “abstract” word but rather speak lovingly of the physical specifics—“forest, meadow, river, rock, path: things you can point at, things you can use.”

Strangely, that line of dialogue conveys more of the essence of the movie’s alpine setting than does the cinematography. Much of the action there takes place outdoors; Pietro’s father (Filippo Timi) is an enthusiastic hiker and climber who takes the two boys with him on his expeditions, and Pietro, in his many returns to the region, delights in the peaks, in the clear water of the lake, in the rock formations. The movie presents these landscapes as cinematic abstractions, with drones and Steadicams and cameras perched on high to show the small figures of humans overwhelmed by, yes, nature, and to show the spectacular sights that surround the characters. But it stints on the visual point of view of the characters, voids itself of contemplative poise and analytical precision, hardly stays still long enough, looks in detail long enough. It doesn’t pay enough closeup, hands-on attention to soil and stone and water and snow, to wood and fire, to flesh and fabric, to suggest that the characters have any more of a physical connection to the settings than they have a perceptual one.

The movie similarly dispenses the idea of physical labor, whether the construction of a house or the milking of cows or the production of cheese, in a handful of quick and approximative shots to merely signify that the work is being done, not how it’s done or what thought and knowledge go into it. Such omissions are conspicuous in the movie’s sketch of intellectual life, too: when Bruno makes eventual mention of the richer vocabulary and richer emotions that he’s got from reading books, there’s no indication of what he’s been reading, of what matters to him and why. There’s almost no wider world, no politics, no history, no sense of connection to what’s going on outside the narrow circle of personal relationship, no notion that the characters have any awareness at all about the news, about society at large, about the changes that they’re experiencing in daily life through technology, law, or mores, in the course of the film’s thirty or so years of drama. (Even Pietro’s distant travels are rendered merely picturesque, utterly unrooted in any factuality regarding the places he visits.)

Actually, there is a bit of the wider world built into the film, and it’s exemplary: both Bruno’s uncle (Gualtiero Burzi), himself a cheesemaker, and Bruno himself complain of the burdensome regulations that make it hard to make a living in that business. But which regulations, and whose? Italy’s? The European Union’s? Are there local officials or representatives, a priest, any interface with power, with the country at large, that the village residents can approach? The movie has no interest in anything but the one line of complaint—yet that complaint is a revealing one, a voicing of a sort of libertarianism of formerly blissful isolation and personal solutions that the movie’s own drama, its own aesthetic, embodies and celebrates.

“The Eight Mountains” is emblematic of a popular form of art-house cinema. It eschews the ostensibly ginned-up vulgarities and bombast of Hollywood superheroism, franchises, fantasies, and special effects, and it avoids the reproachful disturbances of a world of trouble and discord, of conflicts of ideals and ideas, that are represented or even implied in more substantive movies of authentic artistry (including comedies). Rather, “The Eight Mountains” suggests a cinematic centrism that transmits, supposedly, real lives of real people but without any of the messiness or complexity of political life or inner turmoil, just the dewy fluctuations of private emotional connections; its pseudo-humanism takes for granted the detachment of the personal from society over all, and flaunts an aesthetic to embody it.

Nonetheless, the movie feels as overproduced as a superhero-franchise movie. Seeing the overhead shots of three people in the snow, seeing any of the climbing, the walking, the milking, I hear and see the crew, the walkie-talkies, the muffled clamor that goes into turning raw experience into overcooked and denatured images. The filmmakers’ self-imposition of a pristinely clean aesthetic results in the kind of emptied, tranquillized, minutely calibrated experience that’s no less a matter of fan service than the latest installment of comic-book I.P., and offers no more meaningful a view of life. And the film presumes to do so with a vanity that mere corporate-style entertainment avoids. It advances its hermeticism not just as a pleasure or even as a privilege but as a virtue. ♦

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