THE STORY – In the early 1970s, Rome is a city in transition. As an emerging middle class supplants an antiquated family dynamic, Clara and her husband, Felice, move into a new apartment with three children. Stuck in a languid marriage to an unfaithful and abusive husband, Clara focuses her attention on the kids, connecting with them by channeling her own inner child. She relates to 13-year-old Adriana the most, and the two run through the streets yelling at the top of their lungs to escape the adversities of life. Adriana has begun to identify as a boy, Andrew, and proclaims to his mother that he comes from another galaxy — something that Clara definitely relates to.
THE CAST – Penélope Cruz, Vincenzo Amato, Luana Giuliani, Patrizio Francioni, Maria Chiara Gorett & Penelope Nieto Conti
THE TEAM – Emanuele Crialese (Director/Writer), Francesca Manieri & Vittorio Moroni (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 98 Minutes
L’immensità translates to “the immensity.” This can mean different ideas to different people: the immensity of work, family, or simply life. It’s a weight that the family at the center of Emanuele Crialese’s latest drama carries. “L’immensità,” based on the director’s own life experience, is an honest and poignant portrait of a mother and child who feel alien in a world that doesn’t understand them. It’s an emotional journey of a child discovering his sexuality and the strength of a mother’s love that transcends time and place.
“L’immensità” is visually striking from its very first frame. The camera captures a child on a rooftop, both from above and below, as he looks for a sign beyond the Roman skyline. He eats a handful of hosts hoping for a miracle from God. “You and dad made me wrong,” he explains to his mother. He looks in the mirror and doesn’t recognize himself. Andrew (Luana Giuliani) is a boy in a girl’s body. Too young to understand gender in all its complexities, he believes he must be a child from another galaxy. He reaches up to the sky, hoping for some explanation for his frustration.
The scene moves quickly in the film’s introduction from the child to his mother, Clara. A close-up of Penélope Cruz’s face playfully moves around her features, in focus and out. It’s not until you realize she’s crying that it becomes clear that she’s searching for a miracle to alleviate her own kind of pain. She’s unlike most adults, and her child is unlike most children. Unafraid of embracing a wild, childlike side, she happily indulges in a playfulness that others find embarrassing. Unlike most mothers, she also accepts Andrew’s queerness, something others find queer itself. Unable to embrace the traditional gender role of a doting housewife, she’s another alien lost on a planet.
Set in Rome in the early 1970s, Andrew and his mother Clara’s home is drowning in the uber-religious, old-world dynamic of a family. The film showcases a modern sentiment in an old setting as they both try to break out of a life that’s crushing them – but there’s no room in the world to embrace the outsider. An abusive, domineering father spreads hatred in his household, causing not only hurt but tension between the three children who live there. This illusion of “normal” that many families cling to is toxic, sending the family into a downward spiral. All Clara and Andrew can do is run through a crowd together, yelling at the top of their lungs.
The vibrancy of the film’s production design and costuming contrasts with the tense, spiritless energy in the home. It’s not always like this, thankfully, as Clara tries to bring as much joy to her children’s lives as possible, even when the emotion is foreign to her. A sense of suffocation is created as the children deal with a marriage they see crumbling before them and the mother’s waning strength as she does everything to protect them. Cruz portrays a woman trapped, who’s sinking deeper and deeper into depression as she tries so desperately to keep her family together for her children’s sake. Sacrificing one’s happiness for their child is often seen as something easy, but here, Clara is allowed to crumble. “L’immensità” thrives in its authenticity that’s also seized by the children, especially Giuliani. Here, we see children who blame themselves and worry about their parents when it should only ever be the other way around. Add in Giuliani’s affecting turn as a child with the weight of societal expectation on his shoulder, and you get a portrait of a family that’s so incredibly honest.
“L’immensità” isn’t perfect. It does lose a bit of steam and has an ending that feels to lack finality, but its embrace of queerness is satisfying. Andrew is queer in sexuality; Clara is in how she behaves as a woman and mother. The film is also queer in how it differentiates itself from the straight family drama. In all the gloom that often hangs over the piece, it’s broken by euphoric, black-and-white dance sequences to fully realize the escape Andrew and his mother are constantly searching for. It’s an incredibly joyful film, despite all the issues that arise in their household, and one that reminds its audience that what’s more queer than anything else is trying to hold on to the traditional family structure and values.