Nineteen-seventies Rome was a time and city of transition, new architecture and art to replace the ugly, cold and impersonal monolithic existence created by Mussolini—a perfect metaphor for the personal transition of a family in emotional distress from every angle, especially Spanish-born, mentally burdened mother (Penélope Cruz in another galvanizing role) and her deeply confused daughter Ariana (a career-defining performance by Luana Giuliani). A painful, heart-rending coming of age drama, L’immensità, which translates as “immensity,” is a sensitive, painful prize winner from the Venice Film Festival that mirrors the ethos and intensity of a tortured family’s experience in a time of change.
L’IMMENSITA ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
Adriana, the eldest of three children, looks after her younger brother and sister and acts as a wedge between her unhappy mother and the husband who abuses her. Adriana knows she is trapped in the wrong body, identifies with her female gender but calls herself Andrew, accusing her parents of making her wrong and lacking the power to “fix” her. Neither a girl nor a boy, Adriana is an in-between in the years before gender affirmation was a common reality. The toll of her predicament distorts teenage reality from morning to night. The father Felice (Vincenzo Amato) rants disapproval for the daughter who calls herself Andrew, breakfasts are solemn affairs with the mother in tears, the youngest daughter plays with her food, the middle son poops on the floor. When the others aren’t looking, Clara identifies with Adriana/Andrew; they dance and sing duets while setting the table, losing themselves in the kitschy musical numbers from the variety shows they watch on their black and white TV set.
What this family needs is a disciplined maternal center, but what frustrates and enrages Felice is the fact that Clara is little more than a child herself, treating the children like playmates. At a lavish family holiday gathering when Adriana crawls under the table to steal and mix up the guests’ car keys, Clara crawls under the table with him/her and joins in the game. Yearning to be a boy and desperate to escape the dull, repressive elements of daily reality, Adriana is an isolated soul, but instead of guidance, Clara embraces his/her fantasies, creating confusion and turbulence for Felice and the rest of her children. “I come from another galaxy,” says Andria/Andrew and Clara radiantly takes him at his word. They’re both indelibly wounded outsiders in their own town and inside their own skin. All this identity crisis leads Clara to suffer a nervous breakdown and she is sent away for a rest cure. When she returns, it is never fully explained, but someone sets fire to the unhappy house and what happens next is unforgettable.
This extraordinary film is directed by the esteemed Emanuele Crialese, who is himself trans. It is based on his own adolescence, which makes the grim details doubly memorable. Crialese knows how to tell a story and he gets phenomenal performances out of his entire cast, especially Penélope Cruz, whose haunting beauty stays with you after the film ends, and Luana Giulani, who magnifies the screen with consuming eyes, an impressive dramatic range, and an appealing voice as she vocally explores a vast sound track of songs, including “Where Do I Begin,” Francis Lai’s corny theme from Love Story. Admittedly, this is a hard film to watch and hardly everyone’s cup of tea—but if you crave something different, tender and unforgettable, I highly encourage you to see L’immensità.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.