L’Immensità: a heartfelt but overly insistent drama

Emanuele Crialese’s flamboyant film features strong performances by Penélope Cruz and newcomer Luana Giuliani, but its kitschy exuberance and feel-good simplicity will leave many viewers disappointed.

5 September 2022

By Jonathan Romney

Luana Giuliani and Penélope Cruz in L'Immensità (2022)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival

Penélope Cruz is unmistakably the selling point of Emanuele Crialese’s L’Immensità. It’s her face with those trademark lashes in close-up on the Italian poster – but then, the Spanish star has long been closely identified with Italianità. She played a Roman sex worker in Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love (2012), and starred in two notable Italian films by Sergio Castellitto, Don’t Move (2004) and Twice Born (2012) (though in the former, her character was Albanian-born). But the fact that she can convincingly pass as Italian, even archetypically Italian, was what inspired Pedro Almodóvar to use her quite overtly as a latter-day Loren or Magnani figure – a sort of Mamma Roma all’espagnola – in his 2006 film Volver.

In the 70s-set L’Immensità, however, Cruz is not the centre but the glamorous supporting player. The lead role belongs to Luana Giuliani as Adriana, a teenage girl who has begun to identify as a boy, preferring the male ‘Andrea’ (‘Andrew’ in the English subtitles). As well as coming to terms with his gender, Andrea is shouldering the standard burdens of an Italian Catholic upbringing; his Spanish-born mother Clara (Cruz) is increasingly depressed; and his father (Vincenzo Amato) is a short-fused authoritarian. A glimmer of hope appears when Andrea and his siblings, children of a wealthy middle-class family, push through a heavily symbolic border of tall reeds near their apartment to find a Romani encampment, where Andrea embarks on a tentative romance with a young girl, Sara (Penelope Nieto Conti).

Andrea’s and Clara’s discontent is offset by the constant presence of music, turning a potentially downbeat drama flamboyantly – and somewhat over-assertively – euphoric. The film begins in what appears to be a fantasy sequence – although this is left to our interpretation – as Clara leads her children through a joyous domestic dance routine. Later, a tuxedoed Andrea performs in black and white as a cabaret crooner, while Cruz appears in blonde wig and bleached eyebrows, weirdly transformed into the popular singer Raffaella Carrà. The strangest moment is built around ‘Prisencolinensinaincuisol’ by Adriano Celentano, the pop star who appeared in La Dolce Vita (1960) and who in 1972 concocted this bizarre, horn-laden number with its nonsense fake-English lyrics. Celentano and a host of dancers perform the number on TV; later, Giuliani and Cruz star in a lavish reconstruction of the routine, with Clara as a go-go dancer and Andrea sporting Celentano’s oddball get-up of raincoat, slouch hat and scarf.

Andrea announces, “I come from another galaxy,” but Clara feels just as much an alien in Rome, both at home and on the streets, where she’s hassled by over-insistent admirers. Together, the pair unite in adolescent-style rebellion, as they race through a crowd yelling, “Viaaaa!” (“Let’s go!”); elsewhere Clara snubs the stuffiness of the Italian haute bourgeoisie, getting under the table and joining in her children’s mischief at a formal family dinner.

Crialese is known as an accomplished director of serious-minded films executed with polished elegance – among them, 2002’s Respiro, with Valeria Golino as another woman whose free spirit is stifled by society, and 2006’s ambitious Charlotte Gainsbourg vehicle Golden Door, a period piece about Sicilian immigration to US. His first feature in 11 years, L’Immensità is particularly personal, Crialese has said, based as it is on his own experience as a trans man; asked about Andrea, he has said, “There is no doubt that that’s me.” Crialese has chosen to cast a cisgender girl in the lead, on the grounds that it would be distressing for a teenager to be filmed while actually going through what their character was experiencing; he says of Luana Giuliani, “She simply had to pretend that she wanted to be a boy.”

The result is a performance of imposing charismatic toughness, with Giuliani sporting a mesmerising glare and exuding proto-punk defiance in a red leather jacket emblazoned with badges. She and Cruz make an engaging duo in what is more than anything a mother-child story of friendship and complicity against the odds. Undeniably, though, L’Immensità – named after the 60s pop ballad that features in the end credits – is one of those sleekly staged crowd-pleasers that go down so well with domestic audiences at the Venice Film Festival. Its kitsch exuberance is something you either buy or don’t, but it’s Crialese’s personal investment that makes L’Immensità distinctive, even when the themes of conformity, rebellion and the search for the true self are laid out with a kind of feelgood – and sometimes play-safe – obviousness.

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