Lessons on Friendship, Nature and Searching for Home

Lessons on Friendship, Nature and Searching for Home

The Eight Mountains

Feb 28, 2024

Illustration by Neema Iyer

This weekend, at the invitation of a friend, I caught a limited screening of ‘Le Otto Montagne’ (The Eight Mountains) based on the book by Paolo Cognetti. Though it premiered at the 75th Cannes Film Festival in May 2022, it was only released in Australia at the end of last year - so I am a bit behind on the times!

The movie, set in the Italian Alps, is so deeply visually stunning that it makes your heart ache. The story unfolds slowly with terse dialogue so that if you haven’t read the book, you’re not quite sure where the story is going. At a time where trailers tell you the entire story before you’ve set foot in the theatre, this actually felt comforting, not knowing what to expect and perhaps not expecting anything. The 2 hour and 27 minute movie could have ended at any point after the first hour and it would have still been a satisfying story of friendship, nature, disconnection and how we choose (or are forced) to be in the world.

A quick synopsis: The movie begins when Pietro, city boy, and Bruno, mountain boy, are 12 and become friends when Pietro’s family visits the small mountainside village for their summer holiday. Through the years, their friendship grows then abruptly ends, and they reconnect once again as adults to build a mountain home that Bruno promised to Pietro’s late father. Through the story, they both vacillate between the highs and lows - and the realities - of life. The rest of the writing contains a few spoilers, so if you plan to watch the movie, stop here! 

The first interesting thing about the movie for me is that it’s shot in the Academy ratio (4:3) and has a distinctive feel that it was shot on film. Upon researching, I found that it was filmed with the ARRI Alexa Mini cameras and then colour graded to evoke a nostalgic 90s feel. Despite filming majestic and rolling mountainous landscapes, the filmmakers made a deliberate decision to ditch the widescreen format that dominates contemporary cinema in favour of a frame that captures instead the height and grandeur of the peaks, and this thoughtful choice proved to be extremely effective. It gave me the same feeling as when I stand on the beach at night, where everything feels infinites and I feel so tiny and fleeting. 

The movie pans between shots of the freedom that Pietro experiences frollicking in lush green fields and the dreariness of being shut in an apartment in ‘dangerous’ cities. Always under adult supervision. The film artfully juxtaposes the liberation found in nature with the constriction of urban life - something that I am still grappling with. And yet when young Bruno is offered the chance to live and study in the city, he’s elated that he will finally escape the hold that the mountains have had on him his entire young life.

I have always self-identified as a sea-level person. I grew up at sea-level. I’d take the beach over the mountains, any day. I climbed up to Mount Kilimanjaro a few years ago and hated it. However, over the years, I have come to appreciate (smaller) mountains. During my time in Europe, I visited the Zugspitze in Southern Germany, the Dolomites in Italy and the  mountains around Voss in Norway. In the movie, there’s a scene where Bruno and Pietro share some cheese, salami and bread by the lake and that is one of my favourite memories from Europe. Just a little rucksack with a knife and some bits and bobs we picked up from the deli in the morning. Another favourite was a short day hike to the top of a mountain just outside Bolzano and when we got to the top, there was a lively mountain hut serving hot chocolate and kaiserschmarrn, complete with a young boy playing the accordion (after he had finished washing the dishes). Our home in Kronberg backed out on the Taunus mountains and during the COVID lockdowns, we would spend several days hiking around the different, often snow covered, peaks. We took several days-long hikes, spending the nights in huts along the way. Walking miles each day, gravel or snow underfoot, and yet never running out of things to talk about. 

A second interesting thing for me is that around mid-way through the movie, Bruno has moved back to his mountain village, rebuilt his uncle's old structure for alpine cheesemaking and started producing cheese the traditional way. And in that moment, you too want to ditch it all and start a small farm and live off the land. Except, the business totally goes bust because it’s just not sustainable in today’s world and he loses everything he built, including his family. It’s a stark reality check. In fact, Bruno is the last child in a dying village. Everyone had moved away for work to urban areas or died. It makes you wonder how many little villages across the world and all their history and culture are slowly being swept away with mass production and capitalism. 

A third interesting thing is around the name of the movie which claims to be based on ancient Indian or Buddhist cosmology. The world consists of eight concentric circular mountain ranges, each separated by eight seas, and at the centre of it all stands the ninth and tallest mountain, Mount Sumeru (or Mount Meru). Pietro who begins to spend considerable time and finds love in Nepal asks Bruno the question - who is wiser - the one who has reached and seen all the eight peaks or the one who climbs to the top of the tallest peak? In the movie, it is Pietro who travels to find himself, whereas Bruno, like a tree, grows strong roots where his home is and builds his identity around the mountain he was raised on. 

On a drunken summer night when he brings up the question, Pietro draws a representation of the Eight Mountains like the diagram above.

This made me think about my itinerant life. I was born an expat. I’ve never lived in the home countries of either of my parents. My name and identity are a mix of religions, countries, cultures and races. I’m neither here nor there. I’m everywhere. I’ve lived in eight cities across four different continents. I have spent most of my life circling the eight different peaks, looking for a place to call home, even though, deep down, I’ve suspected that it is not a physical place. Because the home I was raised in has none of the people I love in it, so for me, in this time-space, it is no longer a place that exists or a place to return to. I haven’t been back in almost two decades. 

In the final scene of the movie, we discover that Bruno has been killed in an avalanche on the mountain. As the movie narrator, Pietro informs us that since Bruno is gone, he will never return to the mountain again. There may be some mountains to which one might never find their way back. And I couldn’t help but feel the same. 

Here's to many more walks and a growing appreciation of mountains, with my favourite hiking companion.