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Acht Berge / The Eight Mountains

Directors: Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch (Italy, Belgium, France). Year of Release: 2022

Summer 1984, the Italian village of Grana in the foothills of the Alps. In the bustling times, 183 people lived here, but now the number is down to 14, not much more than a couple of dairy farmers. But there’s a couple more people in town this Summer. Pietro’s parents are renting a cottage over Summer to get away from the big city of Turin. But dad is busy with his engineering job, so only mum and Pietro actually make the journey.

Pietro soon meets up with Bruno. Both are approaching their 12th birthdays (take heed countless reviewers: they are not 12 at the start of the film), and it’s just as well that they get on, as Bruno is, as he says, the last child in the village. Cue scenes of Pietro and Bruno playing in fields and streams, and having toy fights while smiling broadly. If your idea of a good time is watching kids playing around for apparently ages, this may well be the film for you.

Pietro’s father finally arrives. He is, in the great German word, launisch, for which there’s no direct translation, but the nearest I can find is temperamental. Dad takes Pietro and Bruno for long walks, whether they want to or not. The weaker Pietro often lags behind, while dad and Bruno surge forward. After a while, dad offers to pay to take Bruno to a “proper” school in Turin, which is rejected out of hand by Bruno’s builder father, and seems to lead to a rift between the two boys.

Decades pass before Pietro returns. In the film, the passage of time is shown by the changing amount of facial hair worn by Pietro and Bruno. There are several time shifts, but the facial hair is almost always more than necessary. Pietro’s long estranged dad has left him some land on a nearby hill, and he has decided to build himself a cottage. Or rather, given their relative competencies, he has decided that Bruno will build himself a cottage while he offers mild help.

Pietro takes on two jobs throughout the Winter, so that he can spend the Summers messing about in Grana. On one occasion, he invites a party of friends to stay in the cottage. A couple of kisses with Lara seem to be leading somewhere, but when Bruno rings him at work, Pietro assures him that they’re just friends. Soon after, Bruno marries Lara. A little later, Bruno and Lara have a kid, and Pietro leaves for Nepal where he becomes a successful travel writer.

The way in which the film treats Lara is indicative of how it’s all about the men. No-one thinks to ask whether Lara prefers Pietro or Bruno, and we barely see her on screen. One minute, Pietro is dining with Bruno and Lara, while they put their arms around each other. Later they have a baby girl. Pietro will have a relationship with a Nepalese woman whose character is similarly underdeveloped. You feel that the women are only there as appendages to the Bros.

Some other incidents which you might think are dramatically interesting remain off screen. We see the aftermath of an avalanche, but not the avalanche itself. Bruno has financial problems, but this mainly happens while we are watching Pietro dick around in Nepal. This means that we move rapidly from a feeling of relative normalcy to Pietro getting the first flight back to Italy. He returns to meet a surly Bruno and an absent Lara (there is really little room for women in this film).

The feeling that everything is underwhelming is really not helped by the bland soundtrack. Which film is it (127 hours maybe?) which plays a recording of Rufus Wainwright singing Agnes Dei, as the camera grandiosely sweeps down from a mountain top through a beautiful landscape? Whichever film it does, its music matches the magnificence of the scenery in exactly the same way that Swedish singer-songwriter Daniel Norgren’s interstitial score to Acht Berge doesn’t-

Norgren’s lyrics are earnest but somehow discordant with the mood of the film. For a start, they are in English, while the dialogue is in Italian (or, in this evening’s case, in synchronised German). This makes it much more difficult to relate the sentiment of the songs to what we are seeing on screen. This may just be a personal reaction. Many reviewers found the music beautiful. To my ears, it was just dreary. Which, in an unintended way, perfectly fits the mood of the film.

In case you were wondering, the title relates to one of Pietro’s stories from Nepal. Few stories which start with a folk saying end up well, and this is no different. But apparently Nepalese people (we’re not told which ones) say that Mount Meru is surrounded by 8 seas and 8 mountains. They ask whether it is better to stand at the top of Mount Mero and look down on all that you survey, or to explore the natural features below. Are you engaged by this question, because I’m not?

I think I can see what Acht Berge is trying to do, and why it has received a generally favourable critical reception, but I’m sad to say that it just doesn’t do it for me. The landscape is breathtaking, but to be honest if I were looking for great views of hills and lakes, I’d go to Italy rather than a cinema in Pankow. And it is somewhat strange that a film with such astounding broad visuals is shot in 4:3 format, which diminishes the very thing that it delivers the best.

I have also seen a number of reviews get excited about the fact that this is a film about men who are unable to express themselves properly. To which my immediate response is enough already. Inarticulate males have taken centre stage for too long – it’s time to look at more interesting dilemmas. Added to which, it is exceedingly difficult to depict people not expressing themselves in a way that is dramatically interesting. And this is a problem which Acht Berge is unable to address.

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