Throughout his career, director Emanuele Crialese has focused on telling stories about migration, both literal (his gorgeous Nuovomondo chronicles an Italian family’s journey to NYC during the turn of the century) and figurative (in Respiro, a woman rediscovers herself while battling mental illness). In L’immensità, he brings both dimensions into play by telling his most personal tale yet; an autobiography of sorts, set in 1970s Rome, in which the young Andrea (Luana Giuliani) begins to question their gender identity.
Andrea’s only aid is their mother Clara, played by Penélope Cruz, who herself is going through an existential crisis. A Spanish immigrant living in Italy, Clara lives with a husband (Vincenzo Amato) who demands the loyalty and compassion from his wife that he fails to provide. Cruz, who has built an impressive body of work in four languages (Clara speaks Italian with a Spanish accent, adding another layer of nuance to the character), gives one of her finest performances yet as a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, trying her best to take care of her children while maintaining her own sense of self.
As the film begins its U.S. release, we spoke to Cruz about working with Crialese, how Clara’s costumes informed her sense of time and place, why it means so much to her to tell stories that deal with social issues, and the Italian diva she would love to play.
The Film Stage: In L’immensità you play a version of Emanuele’s mother. In Pain and Glory you played a version of Pedro Almodóvar’s mother. What’s it like to have auteurs you love select you to play their mothers?
Penélope Cruz: It’s a great honor because in these cases it goes beyond picking the right person to play the character. You need a connection that goes beyond that, which I’m lucky to have with both of them.
What kind of work did you need to do with the actors who play your children in the film? Did you have conversations with them about what is happening in the family dynamic onscreen?
For Emanuele and me it was very important to take the time to build strong relationships with the actors before we started shooting, so the children came to my home in Madrid and we rehearsed over many days in a local studio. We shared meals and spent time together, they met my family, and that way we were able to create a real relationship.
By the time we arrived in Italy we knew each other very well and had created the kind of trust where, if they had had any issues on set, they could come to me or Emanuele and talk to us openly. Whenever I work with children, even if they’re babies, I take the time to develop a connection with them. Everything is so new to children––we might be shooting a scene where we address subjects they’ve never been exposed to before, so we have to prepare and help them.
Right, like the babies in Parallel Mothers, who were so tiny…
I spent a lot of time with those children. Their mothers were so generous as well––they trusted me with their babies. When they’re that age, children need to get used to scent and sound, so because I knew them so well they never cried when they were with me. Milena [Smit] and I made sure to work with them so they wouldn’t feel uncomfortable.
I love the scenes in L’immensità where you and the children recreate all these famous musical moments from Italian culture from the ’60s and ’70s in order to take a break from life. Where did you escape to when you were a child?
You’re not going to believe this, but one of the places I escaped to was Raffaella Carrà’s musical numbers. I used to perform her songs in parks. My grandmother requested numbers, and I loved performing for her. It was an honor to do one of her songs in the film; I felt as if I’d been preparing for this my whole life. I used to study her movements and style when I was a child. Raffaella has been very important in my life, although I never met her.
Also, the Patty Bravo number in the film made me think of my mother because she loves her. That song is also very touching because it’s about thanking others for accepting you for who you are. Those two numbers specifically were so moving because it’s the place where all these characters can truly be who they are; it’s where they can be who they dream of being and aren’t allowed to be in real life.
You also seemed to be having a lot of fun during those sequences…
It’s an incredible adrenaline rush. You end up having a lot of fun. But think about the fact that we were replicating the exact same choreography from the TV shows: Emanuele decided to shoot the scene by recreating it shot-by-shot, and those numbers were so cool they look modern, even today. So it involved a lot of work and preparation from choreographer Blanca Li and the children.
I love how Clara uses her clothes and hair as an armor to face the hostile environment she lives in. There was a scene where she seems to be a Joan of Arc-like figure getting ready for battle in her bedroom. Can you talk about Clara’s relationship to her costumes?
Clara doesn’t do any of this for her husband; her costumes are another tool she uses to become a little bit more like the person she wants to be. She also uses this to help Andrea become who they want to be, since Clara is the only person in the family who respects and values this. When Clara realizes she won’t be able to give Andrea what they need, she enters a profound depression because she can’t do what she believes is right. Clara’s wings are constantly being cut off.
Back in the ’70s, women were very conscious of their look and took great care of it. I’m not saying they don’t do that nowadays, but I remember the things my grandmother used to do at home. She taught me how to sew by hand and she used to make beautiful mantones de Manila [Spanish shawls] which you look at now and have nothing to envy haute couture garments. Women took great care of themselves from within their homes, using the skills they had developed. Clara uses all of this to be able to fly.
What does it mean to you to be part of this film at a time when trans people’s rights are under attack all over the world?
It’s very important for me to be part of this story. When I first read the screenplay it went beyond just liking it––I was honored to be asked to be another piece of this puzzle that addresses all these important themes, as well as domestic violence. We might be in 2023, but there are women all over the world living like Clara. Or in much worse conditions.
Emanuele touches on these themes with nuance––he knows what he’s talking about––and this shows in the film. Being a part of this adventure with him has been a dream. Although it seems things have gotten much better, Emanuele speaks of an arc: where things have progressed in some ways, but there’s another extreme that seems to be more radical than ever when it comes to ignoring, suppressing, and oppressing other people’s freedom. Perhaps things need to go through this in order to achieve balance? I don’t know, really, but I believe it’s important not to lose our hope.
You were a producer in Juan Diego Botto’s brilliant On the Fringe, which deals with the massive eviction problem countries like Spain are facing. Is it important for you as an artist to be part of films that touch on important social issues?
It’s always a plus. You can’t really decide that you’re only going to make films about these themes, or that you’re always going to play mothers, or star in dramas. You can’t really plan anything that way in our field, but when I have three screenplays on the table I will always choose the one that moved me the most or the one that triggered emotional reactions that don’t necessarily have to be the most comforting, but start a movement inside me that then I can turn into something external through the character. I’m interested in having dialogue and debate. We know a single film won’t change the world, but when movies turn out right they can touch people’s hearts and contribute something. Films and music have that power.
Going back to music briefly: if Pedro Almodóvar is finally able to make the Raffaella Carrà biopic he’s mentioned wanting to do in the past, you’d definitely say yes to playing her, right?
Can you imagine? I would love to! Daring to play her would be an incredible challenge, but yes––of course I’d say yes. I adore her.
L’immensità is now in limited theaters and will expand.