In films like Volver, Parallel Mothers, Everybody Knows, and now L’immensità, Penélope Cruz has cornered the market on playing mother figures that are both larger than life and movingly earthy. As Clara, the loving Spaniard expatriate trying to raise her children while staying married to an unfaithful man in 1970s Rome, Cruz does some of the best work of her already incredible, multilingual career.
To say director Emanuele Crialese’s camera falls in love with Cruz would be an understatement. She is lovingly shot and framed (even her Sophia Loren bob brings attention to her expressive eyes) and we don’t even need to hear her speak to know whoever’s gaze she’s under has completely fallen under her spell.
This adoration takes on a heartbreaking twist when we realize the camera is acting as a surrogate for Clara’s eldest, Adriana (Luana Giuliani) who was assigned female at birth, but feels, moves, and identifies like a boy and has chosen to go by the name Andrea. To their father Felice (unbridled toxic male wrath in human form played by a splendid Vincenzo Amato) “Adri,” as they are called at home, has become a source of shame. “Our friends make fun of us,” he yells at Clara during a fight where he tries to shift all blame and responsibility of their family’s chaos onto his wife.
Before moving forward with this review, it’s essential to establish and exercise respect for Andrea’s gender identity. After all, the character is based on Crialese, who came out as trans last fall when L’immensità premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and suggested this portrait of childhood was his most intimate work yet. Therefore, from this moment on, Adriana is no more, you shall only read about Andrea.
In films like Nuovomondo, which followed an Italian family who migrates to the US at the turn of the century, and the absolutely harrowing Terraferma, which chronicles the volatile relationship between poor Sicilian fishermen and undocumented immigrants trying to arrive in Europe via sea, Crialese has told unforgettable stories of people taking on journeys with uncertain destinations.
The sense of foreboding and dread oozing from every frame in Terraferma is replaced for melancholy and profound love in L’immensità, a film that doesn’t posit that Crialese’s journey as a human being has ended, but that now he has the tools and the capacity to look back and craft narratives about the pockets of joy that existed in a life that otherwise would’ve been absolutely unbearable. Therefore whenever the camera looks at Cruz, and she as Clara looks back at the lens, it has the power of the warmest embrace, the power of movies to preserve loving ghosts who accompany, rather than haunt us.
Crialese, however, doesn’t shy away from showing the oppression, insensitivity, and loneliness Andrea felt. During a particularly meaningful sequence, Andrea joins other children as they explore the sewers in a vacation home during the summer. When they get lost and must be rescued by their mothers (all the fathers have returned to Rome to work and their mistresses) we realize this episode spent in darkness is among the rare times when Andrea found solace in being surrounded by kids his age. At school, at home, and in social events, he becomes the butt of the joke.
Besides his mother, Andrea has found love in two other places: a Romani girl (Penelope Nieto Conti) who, almost out of a fable, lives beyond the reeds and accepts Andrea for who he is. If you know how the Romani people were, and continue, being treated in Europe you know this teen romance won’t have a happy ending, but in the scenes between Conti and Giuliani, Crialese captures teenage butterflies in a refreshing way.
Andrea has also found an escape in the pop music of the era and often imagines himself as the rockstars he sees in the family’s black & white TV. Crialese has the time of his life recreating numbers he must’ve seen a million times growing up, including Don Backy’s “L’immensità” which speaks about not being forgotten, and the stunning “Prisencolinensinainciusol,” by Adriano Celentano. In the latter, Andrea imagines himself as the exuberant Celentano, who had crafted an image as a handsome hobo with Elvis’ hips and Jerry Lee Lewis’ swagger. The song remains infamous and beloved for the purpose it served, Celentano who was bored of English music taking over Italian radios took on the task of composing a catchy piece in gibberish meant to sound like English, in order to prove that Italians knew how to do it too.
The song became a hit and Celentano proved that there is perhaps no better way of protesting than to be yourself unabashedly. No wonder the young Andrea, and most likely Crialese, found refuge in what others considered to be nonsense. Cruz and Giuliani become larger than life in the recreation of a number that pays tribute to Busby Berkely, Fosse, and Fellini, the joy they exude perfectly captures the ways in which those misunderstood by society must find ways to live rather than just survive.
L’immensità screened at Sundance 2023.