If you’ve been floundering in the fields of entertainment this spring, you’re not alone. The screen year is off to what I’d call a strange start, with a few beloved TV series concluding with fanfare and a few high-quality indie films sneaking into theaters—but there’s not much that is new and truly great breaking through. Hollywood is as fixated as ever on IP; streaming always has a few tricks up its sleeve (The Diplomat on Netflix and Dead Ringers on Prime are both new series worth a try), but the question of what excellent new thing to watch has never been more bedeviling.
Personally, I look abroad at times like these—and sure enough, two fantastic foreign films are opening this weekend, and a gripping Italian true-crime series appeared on Hulu earlier this month that has barely been written about. So that makes three international offerings for your weekend—all far and away the best new things I’ve seen this year.
The Eight Mountains
This ravishing movie, shot mostly in the Italian Alps, comes from a pair of Belgians, Felix Van Groeningen and his partner, Charlotte Vandermeersch, who were new names to me. I hadn’t seen Van Groeningen’s 2012 film The Broken Circle Breakdown nor read the 2016 novel on which The Eight Mountains is based. But unprepared is the best way to go into this movie, which feels like a discovery and like something made out of time (in the best possible way).
Filmed with what must have been extreme difficulty in a remote, high-altitude part of Italy, The Eight Mountains bewitches you with a story of two friends who form a close attachment that carries them through the confusions of adulthood. It’s a hard movie to describe, simple as it is, but as a twinned coming-of-age tale, The Eight Mountains has uncommon gravity and gorgeousness—and a moving generosity toward the two male friends at the center, played by the handsome actors Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi.
It begins in the mid-’80s, when a city boy, Pedro, is brought on holiday by his parents to a quiet Alpine village where he meets Bruno, a country kid who befriends him and takes him adventuring around the lakes and mountains. A fissure forms when Pedro’s father, an overworked businessman from Turin, includes Bruno in a mountaineering expedition and Pedro can’t match his young friend’s prowess. The two boys drift apart and are only reunited after Pedro’s father’s death. In their grief, Pedro and Bruno—now young men—build a mountain cabin in the older man’s honor.
The filmmakers actually built this cabin at 7,000 feet. (See an exclusive clip from its spectacular setting below.) Other Alpine sequences are filmed giddily by helicopter and somewhat frighteningly in the depths of winter. Pedro and Bruno experience nothing more complex than the derangements of growing older, of making choices and mistakes, but in their bond and the breathtaking landscape in which it is formed, this careful accounting of their lives is profound.
I still remember Cristian Mungiu’s blunt-force 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), a harrowing Cannes-winning drama about two young women in Communist Romania who arrange and endure an illegal abortion—an indictment of limiting reproductive freedom if ever I’ve seen one. Mungiu’s fascinating new film, R.M.N., is equally political, and if it doesn’t decimate you quite the way his earlier movie does, that’s because the subject here is more diffuse: nativism, an atmosphere of burrowing intolerance in Europe, and the economic anxieties driving it.
We’re in a small village in Romania, where high-paying work is scarce and most able-bodied adults travel across borders to find employment. That’s what the brooding character Matthias has done, but an incident at a slaughterhouse in Germany sends him home to his wife and young son, Rudi. Something in the gloomy forests of the Transylvanian countryside has terrified Rudi, and now he won’t speak, a mystery at the heart of a story that wraps up many strands of civic unease. Matthias’s lover, Csilla, runs a local bakery that desperately needs workers and hires three immigrants from Sri Lanka—stoking the fires of xenophobia in town—and Matthias seeks to draw his son out by teaching him the rituals of violence and toughness, even as his solitary father succumbs to a brain tumor. The film is patiently paced but never boring, shot against striking landscapes and heavy with accumulating dread. A rowdy sequence in the town hall where the residents’ anger is on full display took my breath away, as did the unnervingly symbolic ending. This is not escapism by any means, but a haunting, intelligent vision of European desperation.
The Good Mothers
It’s easy to miss a show or two in the streaming onslaught, but I’m amazed that a series as well-made as The Good Mothers has not gotten more attention. This elegant, crisply watchable crime series—based on true events, about an effort by Italian prosecutors to bring down the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta mob through its embattled women—won an award at the Berlin film festival and was promptly purchased by Disney. (It began streaming on Hulu earlier this month.) The biggest draw for me was the presence of Gaia Girace—an unforgettable newcomer in HBO’s My Brilliant Friend. Girace plays Denise, the daughter of a forbidding ‘Ndrangheta boss whose mother has already turned on the mob and pays a terrible price for speaking to the police.
Girace is just one of the women in this series burdened by fear and rage, letting their predicament dance across their faces as the prosecutors circle and the men in their lives eye them with murderous mistrust. Another discovery for me was Valentina Bellè as Giuseppina Pesce, the wife of an imprisoned mobster who becomes central to the case even as her life falls apart.
The Good Mothers is transporting in its Calabrian locations and has an air of lived-in authenticity that recalls that cult-hit Italian crime saga Gomorrah (though it has little of Gomorrah’s horrific violence). An absorbing and richly complex story of truth and consequences.