A tender, intensely personal portrait of dysfunctional family in 1970s Rome, Italian director Emanuele Crialese’s L’Immensita covers a lot of distance indeed. Internationally, it’s bound to draw attention for Penelope Cruz’s wrenching performance as Clara, an unhappily married mother of three coping with mental health issues. (Cruz is suddenly everywhere all at once, appearing not just in this competitor for the Golden Lion in Venice, but also on the Lido as a player in out-of-competition feature On the Fringe.)
Closer to home, the film is sure to generate press over the fact that Crialese just came out publicly as a trans man at the film’s press conference, having discussed the matter a little more gingerly in an interview in Variety the week before the film’s premiere. He explained that his own experience of dysphoria formed the inspiration for the trans character Andrea/Adria at the heart of L’Immensita‘s story, played by Luana Giuliani, who offscreen does not identify as male.
The Bottom Line
A vibrant, if over-crammed, family affair.
Given how intensely stories about trans characters have been scrutinized in the past, and sometimes found wanting because of the casting of cis actors or lack of input from trans creatives (see for instance the debate around TV’s Transparent or film The Danish Girlamong others), Crialese’s brave decision to come out will inevitably shape reactions.
But it’s notable that Crialese braids Andrea’s gender story into a broader narrative with several subplots, including his mother Clara’s fractious marriage, a story that echoes the unhappy family in Crialese’s breakout feature. Respiro (2002). As with Valeria Golino’s character in the latter, Clara here has wild mood swings and moments of playful unpredictability that are seen as problematic by the conventional family around her, especially her husband Felice (Vincenzo Amato). He turns out to be a bit of a cad — absent, unfaithful, and as intolerant of his wife’s spontaneity and repressed playful side as he is of Andrea’s insistence he’s a boy not a girl, the tendency of his youngest child Diana (Maria Chiara Goretti ) to play with her food instead of eating it, and the bulimic behavior of middle kid Gino (Patrizio Francioni), who also has the disturbing habit of defecating in a closet.
That whole nuclear family drama is nested inside a bigger portrait of an extended family of cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles, met in a vacation interlude in the film’s middle act. While Andrea may not be an exact copy of his creator, it’s clear from the way he marshals his clan of cousins into adventures, like a visit to the sewer underneath the family villa, that he’s going to grow up to be something like a film director. one day
As if the film didn’t already have enough drama going on, there’s an additional strand about how the development of the neighborhood will literally reshape Andrea and his siblings’ world, wiping out an encampment used by Roma people. The latter is where Andrea meets his new crush, Sara (Penelope Nieto Conti), a girl who unquestioningly accepts Andrea as a boy and shares a first kiss with him. And all that is interspersed with nostalgic musical numbers, zhuzhed up to look like a 1970s Italian variety show shot in black and white, fantasy sequences in which Cruz and Giuliani lip-sync and dance with a backup troupe of hoofers. After all, everyone coming out should have tuxedos, sequined frocks and show-stopping numbers.
In short, there’s a lot going on here, and not all of it plays nice with the other components. Like so many Bildungsromanit’s a tapestry crammed with incidental details, just as busy as the fantastic vintage-style prints on the women’s dresses and the flammable upholstery in the interiors.
But then Crialese, who’s always been good with performers, will serve up a moment of achingly sad stillness — for example when Clara, confronted with the truth of her husband’s infidelity, almost visibly crumbles into a heap of despair. Cruz holds the film together like a force of gravity, and has a wonderful authentic chemistry with all the kids who play her children here, especially Giuliani. With her fierce, tomboy haircut and steady gaze, the young actor offers a commanding presence throughout, faltering only when compelled to go kitschy in a final musical number. It’s then that we realize with a halting sympathy that she’s still just a kid after all.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Penélope Cruz, Luana Giuliani, Vincenzo Amato, Patrizio Francioni, Maria Chiara Goretti, Penelope Nieto Conti, Alvia Reale, India Santella, Mariangela Granelli, Valentina Cenni
Production companies: Wildside (Fremantle group), Warner Bros. Entertainment Italia, Chapter 2, Pathé, France 3 Cinema
Director: Emanuele Crialese
Screenwriters: Emanuele Crialese, Francesca Manieri, Vittorio Moroni, based on a story by Emanuele Crialese
Producers: Mario Gianani, Lorenzo Gangarossa
Executive producer: Olivia Sleiter
Co-producers: Dimitri Rassam, Ardavan Safaee
Director of photography: Gergely Poharnok
Production designer: Dimitri Capuani
Costume designer: Massimo Cantini Parrini
Editor: Clelio Benevento
1 hour 37 minutes
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