Love and bluegrass music intermix in the Oscar-nominated 2012 Belgian film “The Broken Circle Breakdown” from Belgian filmmaker Felix van Groeningen who has become known for powerful dramas which explore themes of loss and grief, often offset by unexpected musical interludes. In 2018 he made his English language debut with “Beautiful Boy” starring Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet. Emotionally charged but scaled down for the Hollywood machine. “The Eight Mountains” marks van Groeningen’s return to indie territory and a rustic setting as he teams up with real-life partner Charlotte Vandermeesch for a tale of male friendship, regrets, fathers, and life’s unexpected path to purpose set among the majestic Italian Alps.

It’s hard these days to find pure films based on male bonding. Most are comedies, action pieces, or set inside a prison. Intimate stories usually lead to romance, so a drama with a close but purely platonic relationship among men is a rarity. Based on the novel by Paolo Cognetti with beautiful cinematography by Ruben Impens, “The Eight Mountains” captures the deep and genuine relationship men have with one another, told from two angles, the best friend, and the father.

Vandermeesch and van Groeningen experimented with various aspect ratios before settling on the boxy [4:3] ratio which gives the film more intimacy while highlighting the grandeur of the mountain setting. “I didn’t expect to find a friend like Bruno in my life” explains Pietro (Luca Marinelli) in voiceover narration. Our protagonist grew up a city kid living in an apartment in Turin, but part of his youth was spent in a mountain village called Grana where he met the only other child in the area at the time, Bruno (Alessandro Borghi). It was 1984, and both boys were 12 years old.

The film spans several decades as we watch young Pietro (Lupo Barbiero) and Bruno (Cristiano Sassella) play outdoors and explore the ruins of the sleepy village nestled in a valley. At one time 183 people lived in Grana but once a road was built to attract more people, the plan backfired, and most villagers left. Fourteen people remained.

“Mountains” begins as a coming-of-age film interspersed with acoustic songs by Swedish singer-songwriter Daniel Norgren accentuating the mood while adding warmth to the story. Originally hired to score the soundtrack, Norgren was overwhelmed by the scope of the project, choosing instead to submit already produced songs. The music becomes a special part of the film, an additional character, à la Simon & Garfunkel’s songs in “The Graduate.”

Most of the film takes place in the rustic village surrounded by the towering Italian Alps juxtaposed by a few scenes of the fast-paced life of the city where we watch young Pietro attempt to cross a street without being hit by a car. His father Giovanni (a wonderful Filippo Timi) yells at the oncoming traffic while giving his son the cue to make a mad dash for the curb. It’s no wonder that Giovanni, an engineer by trade, can’t wait for summer when he leaves the city with his family to spend vacation in Grana, hiking the mountains.

In one of the early childhood scenes, Pietro and Bruno accompany Giovanni on a mountain climb up a glacier. The ascent proves too difficult for Pietro who forces the trio to turn around and head back down the mountain. Disappointed for letting his father down, Pietro lays his head low as they descend. Giovanni tries to comfort his son by exclaiming “Bravo, you’re a champion, go!” to let Pietro know that it’s okay. In the past, the father and son had no problem climbing the surrounding eight mountains, and now, in front of his best friend, Pietro is devastated by his failure. It’s a pivotal moment in the film that forever changes the relationship between the three of them.

Once we move into Pietro’s teenage years, he becomes distanced from his father. The close bond between the two is gone. Bruno never had a close relationship with his dad who abandoned the family. Giovanni offers to let Bruno live with them in Turin so he can get a good education, but Bruno’s MIA father shows up and takes his 13-year-old son away to begin life as a construction worker. The two boys are separated as life takes each of them in opposite directions.

Marinelli and Borghi as the adult Pietro and Bruno are superb, the two previously worked together in 2015’s “Don’t Be Bad.” Unaware to Pietro, a close relationship developed between his father and Bruno who hiked the mountains together once Pietro distanced himself from Giovanni. The two former childhood friends reunite after Giovanni passes away. Bruno is now a farmer raising a family with his wife Lara (Elisabetta Mazzullo), while Pietro has spent most of his life wandering from job to job unsure or unconcerned about the future. He eventually meets a teacher named Asmi (Surakshya Panta), but she plays second fiddle to Bruno who is never far from Pietro’s thoughts.

Once the two men begin to catch up, Bruno reveals that before Giovanni passed away, he bought the land and cabin in Grana that became a fixture in the young boys’ lives. Now in ruins, Bruno made a promise to Giovanni that he would rebuild the cabin, and with Pietro’s help, the two men reignite their friendship while fulfilling Giovanni’s last wish. In the process, Pietro discovers information about a father he never knew while the usually reserved Bruno opens up about his personal life.

“The Eight Mountains” takes an intimate and simple story and lets it soar to new heights as the tale of male friendship becomes one of this year’s best films. Men bond in different ways than women. There is an abundance of silence that comes with a close relationship as we begin to slowly drop our guard. Vandermeesch and van Groeningen capture the process in its purest form strengthened by the strong performances of Alessandro Borghi and Luca Marinelli. Cinema as pure as the driven snow.

(4 stars)

Now showing at the Angelika Dallas and Angelika Plano

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.