‘L’Immensità’ Review: Penelope Cruz Raises a Trans Son Amid 1970s Italy in Exquisite Drama

Sundance 2023: Trans filmmaker Emanuele Crialese playfully and poignantly tells his story without dipping into dogma

Sundance Institute

“L’Immensità,” the 1967 hit made famous by Don Backy and Johnny Dorelli, has the kind of lyrics that can make you cry just by reading them: “I am sure that in this great immensity/ someone thinks a little of me/ will not forget me./ Yes, I know it,/ all my life I won’t always be alone.”

It’s no wonder that the Italian filmmaker Emanuele Crialese (“Terraferma”) named his latest film after the song. “L’Immensità,” which Crialese co-wrote with Francesca Ranieri and Vittorio Moroni, is an aching and sumptuous ode to growing up and chafing against expectations. Making its North American premiere at Sundance after debuting in Venice, this is a film about adolescence and regression, defiance and surrender. By showing the tangled relationship between a mother and her dysphoric child, “L’Immensità” writes a love letter to the lonely.

The 13-year-old protagonist of “L’Immensità,” played by a stunning Luana Giuliani, is brave, brash, and often assertive. Still, he struggles to communicate his dysphoria. His parents named him Adriana and know him as their daughter, but he would rather go by Andrew. He believes his parents “made him wrong” and insists he is not “pretending” to be a boy — he is one. A child in Rome in the early 1970s, he has no gender non-conforming role models to turn to, nowhere to look for true understanding. 

Andrew’s mother, Clara (Penélope Cruz) is his closest ally. Though, like the rest of his family, she refers to him as Adriana, a girl, she keeps him in masculine clothing and short haircuts. She defends him to his meaner relatives, like his father (Vincenzo Amato) and paternal grandmother. Clara comes by that sympathy honestly. She’s coping with her marriage to a tyrannical, philandering man by slowly falling apart — something a wife of her standing is not allowed to do.

“L’Immensità” is a grand and vibrant work of art. When not aching for Andrew and Clara, you’ll likely find yourself lusting after their apartment, which production designer Dimitri Capuani and set decorator Alessia Anfuso have furbished to mod perfection. Costume designer Massimo Cantini Parrini (“Cyrano”) and cinematographer Gergely Pohárnok have apparently conspired to make the colors blue, red, and orange look as amazing as possible. Blue and red contrast each other repeatedly, likely in a nod to the film’s gender themes. This movie also (blessedly) features several extended musical fantasy sequences.

What’s more, the acting is divine. Cruz is in peak maternal form as Clara, who is by turns erratic and ebullient, but newcomer Giuliani more than holds her own. This is a difficult dynamic to pull off well: Andrew and Clara are locked in a codependent push-and-pull, but their interactions are also soaked with sweetness. Clara envies Andrew’s carefree youth, while Andrew is desperate for her to understand his struggles. In many ways, Andrew is Clara’s primary caregiver as she flounders in her marriage. Yet even in Andrew’s fiercest moments, or at the depths of Clara’s complacency, these characters feel grounded. 

Patrizio Francioni and María Chiara Goretti, who play Andrew’s younger siblings, deliver beautifully honest performances that elevate Guiliani. There is much joy to be found in the siblings’ childish exploits, most especially when a fight is sternly resolved via pinkie promise.

Andrew is consistent and clear in his desire to be known as male, but he also has plenty of reasons to not want to be seen as female. He goes to a gender-segregated Catholic school where the girls wear ruffly frocks. He sees his mother regularly mistreated by men, and it anguishes him. He is nursing an attraction to women, something he undoubtedly does not feel he can act on if he is, himself, one.

In part because of Andrew’s burgeoning romance with a neighborhood girl, it’s impossible to watch this film and not be reminded of Céline Sciamma’s “Tomboy,” another deft masterpiece. The experiences depicted in both films are likely to be achingly relatable to butch lesbians, transgender men, and former tomboys, to name a few.

There is a multiplicity at play here that will feel familiar to many trans and queer viewers. While presenting the film at the Venice Film Festival, Crialese shared his own experience as a transgender man, saying, “I think the best part of being a man is being a woman. I don’t really see the difference for me from being in one world or the other. I am who I am, and I keep in myself both polarities.” His film is likewise expansive, and playfully so. “L’Immensità” is too artful to be prescriptivist, instead reveling in liminality.

The film occasionally dips into mawkishness. Andrew engages his science teacher in an on-the-nose discussion about microbes and struggles with the lower pelvic region of an Operation game board. In one non sequitur of a scene, Clara cries like a Hollywood starlet in the middle of a cinema. The themes of this movie, as well as the director’s love of film/Penélope Cruz, would be crystal clear without such ornamentation.

There are no tidy bows wrapping up this narrative, no definitive labels by which these troubled characters might seek their kin. “L’Immensità” does not definitively prove that Clara and Andrew “won’t always be alone.” Still, here is another part of Crialese’s exquisite, contradictory tapestry: Even when you feel isolated, there’s still the rest of the world left to see. 

“L’Immensità” will open in US theaters later in 2023.