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Majestic views and unforgettable friendship await you in 'The Eight Mountains'

Bruno (Alessandro Borghi) and Pietro (Luca Marinelli) reconnect in the Italian Alps as adults in <em>The Eight Mountains.</em>
Sideshow/Janus Films
Bruno (Alessandro Borghi) and Pietro (Luca Marinelli) reconnect in the Italian Alps as adults in The Eight Mountains.

Over the past several months I've seen a few unusually heartfelt movies about male friendship — a subject that Hollywood likes to milk for laughs but rarely treats with the sincerity and sensitivity it deserves. So it's been refreshing to encounter films that have recently bucked the trend, like Armageddon Timeand the Oscar-nominated Close.

The best of the bunch is the new Italian-language drama The Eight Mountains, which was written and directed by the Belgian filmmakers Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch. Adapted from Paolo Cognetti's 2016 debut novel, it tells the story of two young boys who meet in the Italian Alps and forge a life-changing bond. The mountain scenery is spectacular — see this one in a theater if you can — but it's the richness of the emotional journey that stays with you.

The story is narrated by Pietro, a young boy from the city of Turin who's spending a summer in the Alps with his parents. It's there that he meets another boy about the same age, named Bruno, who lives on a small farm nearby. They become fast friends, and the mountain, with its scenic lakes and lush valleys, makes for a stunning open playground.

The movie captures the rambunctious, rough-and-tumble joy of their time together, which is innocent and perfect and, of course, can't last. Summer ends, Pietro returns to Turin and Bruno remains behind in the mountains. Apart from one brief meeting as teenagers, they don't really see each other again until decades later, when they're fully grown men. Pietro is now played by the terrific Italian star Luca Marinelli, and Bruno by the quietly charismatic Alessandro Borghi.

Their long-overdue reunion is set in motion by the untimely death of Pietro's father. It's here that The Eight Mountains soars to life as an achingly bittersweet drama about two pals returning to the place where they first met years earlier, and making up for all their time apart. I was often reminded of Brokeback Mountain; even if Pietro and Bruno's love story is, as far as we can tell, a platonic one, they both seek refuge in nature — and each other — from their frustrations and disappointments.

Pietro is in for some tough revelations; he learns that his dad, from whom he was estranged, had grown close to Bruno, and had even become a kind of surrogate father figure. But while Pietro feels some jealousy and regret, he doesn't resent Bruno for it; if anything, it brings them closer together, and even allows Pietro to make peace with a parent he never understood.

Before long, the two decide to build a cabin in the mountains — something Pietro's father had dreamed of doing himself. It's hard work, but Bruno is a skilled carpenter and Pietro learns fast. They try to meet back at the house every summer. In the meantime, Bruno becomes a farmer and cheesemaker, like his ancestors before him; he falls in love with a woman and has a daughter. Pietro becomes a writer and also falls in love with a woman, whom he meets while traveling in Nepal.

Even so, both men remain strangely unfulfilled, and one of the insights of The Eight Mountains is that everyone, whether they come from town or country, experiences unhappiness in their own unique way. Pietro, educated and restless, doesn't quite know who he is; he flits from one adventure to the next, unsure of where or how to settle down. Bruno, hardy and stubborn, has the opposite problem: He can't envision a life for himself away from these mountains, even when his bills begin to mount and the farm begins to fail.

This is the first film directed by Vandermeersch, a longtime actor. Her co-director and partner, Van Groeningen, has made a number of earlier features, including the romantic tragedy The Broken Circle Breakdown and Beautiful Boy, an addiction drama starring Timothée Chalamet. He loves tormented characters and big, angsty emotions, but while The Eight Mountains churns with feeling, I came away admiring its subtlety and complexity — and yes, its majesty.

It isn't just the movie's visual grandeur that wows you; it's the scale of it, the way it merges the epic and the intimate. At times the camera will pull back and show us the characters from a distance, dwarfed by the sheer magnificence of their surroundings, as if to suggest how small we all are in the scheme of things. But then it will cut to Pietro and Bruno, letting their faces and bodies fill the screen, and their lives suddenly don't seem so insignificant. Their love story is beautiful — and unforgettable.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.