Film Review: L’immensità


After an eleven-year hiatus, Rome-born director Emanuele Crialese returned to the cinema last year with the Venice premiere of this family drama. Now arriving on UK cinema screens, the 1970s-set L’immensità is a multilayered study of family life in disintegration.

At the heart of that life is Clara, played by a ludicrously-radiant Penélope Cruz, and her relationship with her oldest child. At twelve years old, in a female body, Andrea (Luana Giuliani) cannot convince his mother to call him by his preferred name – Andrea- rather than his birth name, Adriana. Yet her inability to acknowledge her son for his true self is rooted not so much in ignorance but in a complex web of conservative social and cultural discourses that are not easily unpicked.

Underpinning this is a deep, profound love that that the pair share. Andrea is fiercely protective of Clara against his chauvinist father that borders on an Oedipal complex; his fixation on his mother frequently tips into elaborate fantasies of glamour and escape with her. Crialese juxtaposes these glimpses into Andrea’s inner life with Clara’s playfulness with her children, her singing and dancing. As Andrea is a misfit in society, so too is Clara among her adult peers. When Andrea tells her that she and his dad made him wrong, Clara may lack the framework to articulate that he is transgender, but she at least has the imagination and empathy not to dismiss him when he suggests that he must have come from outer space.

A subplot involving a young girl whose family group have set up camp near Andrea’s apartment introduces a vital layer to Andrea’s developing identity. Sara (Penélope Nieto Conti) knows and sees Andrea only as a boy and the film quite sensibly avoids the obvious narrative cliché of her ‘discovery’ of Andrea’s trans-ness. She sees him for his true self, that is all that matters. Their meeting place where they meet, too, is important: hidden by a construction site, ‘the reeds’ is a secretive, liminal space where identity can cross boundaries and flourish, where reality and fantasy can meet and to an extent, resolve.

It is no mistake that L’immensità is set in the 1970s, a time of paradoxical sexual liberation and rigid sexual and gender norms, not to mention the conservatism of Roman Catholicism which runs through the social fabric of the film. Such perspectives often provide prisms through which to understand our own historical moments: while the forces of darkness mount their charges against transgender rights in our own time and place, it is instructive to reflect on such issues at the small distance that L’immensità provides. Crialese does not, perhaps, offer groundbreaking insights into these issues and there is something of an unresolved, shaggy slightness to the narrative’s overall shape, while we never get much insight into the lives of Clara’s other two children. Nevertheless, there is a vitality and a quiet defiance to this kind of filmmaking that is difficult to resist.

Christopher Machell