By Bailey Pennick
When done correctly, stories about the precarious tween years are powerful. It doesn’t matter if it’s a period piece, foreign film, or animated short, those all-too-familiar feelings of first loves, changing bodies, and insecurity come rushing back to anyone gazing at the screen. We’ve all been there. And that’s what’s so magical about Emanuele Crialese’s latest film, L’Immensità; it connects us all through its universal emotions, while letting viewers into the intimate inner workings of its young protagonist’s bittersweet, pop-drenched fantasies.
In 1970s Rome, Adriana (a measured and mature performance by Luana Giuliani) is a 13-year-old in the middle of several transitions: moving to a new apartment with their family, standing up to their cruel and cheating father, and identifying as a boy — presenting as Andrew whenever able to. Crialese’s semi-autobiographical feature weaves the memories of his own youth as a trans man with the fragile story of his mother, Clara (a powerful and tragic Penélope Cruz), struggling to balance the reality of her abusive marriage with her hopes and dreams for her three children.
“[This is] the most personal film I’ve ever done, but all my films kind of talk about the same thing,” the Italian director explains during the post-U.S. premiere discussion at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City, Utah. While it might seem like a faux pas to retread the same subject as a storyteller, Crialese’s well of inspiration is as deep as it is relatable: “[My films] talk about family. Sometimes how it’s difficult to be in a family, when it’s supposed to be wonderful. The relationships between brothers and sisters, mother and fathers — especially when the love is strained or not there anymore between the mother and the father.”
Clara overcompensates for this palpable lack of love by throwing herself completely into her kids’ games at family vacations and holiday parties, even when they want to be on their own as most pre-teens do. However, it appears that the whimsical apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, because throughout L’Immensità we’re treated to Andrew’s fantasies — black-and-white, musical sequences featuring himself and Clara, usually inspired by performances he’s seen on television.
And this brief moment of imagination and self-realization is what is at the core of Crialese’s vision for the film. “At that age, we still had this magical thought process, and that allowed us to believe in visions and imagination,” he explains when asked about some of L’Immensità’s more surreal moments. “See those scenes where they’re really close and dancing, and we see a happy mother and we see an invented male singer? This is all possible [at this moment in time].”
It’s the juxtaposition of these grand, fun numbers against the stark and quiet scenes of a family on the brink that puts each of us into Andrew’s budding adult headspace, reminding us of our own youth on the journey to whom each of us becomes. No one is more optimistic about this brief moment in a young person’s life than Crialese himself: “And in the world where everything is possible, there is space for faith and happiness and freedom.”