People who don’t fit a particular mold have existed since long before society had a label for them. Poor mental health was often assigned as a reason that someone might not be “normal,” an unfortunate part of history that still persists in many places today. L’Immensità, which premiered at the Venice International Film Festival last fall (here’s Elisa’s take) and now arrives in North America at another major film festival, is a colorful portrait of a trans teenager misunderstood by just about everyone around him, and his loving mother, who also struggles to be taken seriously when she seeks to find joy in her life despite her abusive marriage…
Penélope Cruz stars as Clara, a 1970s housewife in Rome. Her husband Felice (Vincenzo Amato) does little for her or for his three children, who often stick up for their mother when he becomes violent. The one who most steps up to defend her is Adri (Luana Giuliani), who, despite everyone referring to him as “she” and “her,” prefers to be called Andrea (the Italian version of Andrew). Andrea finds almost no source of acceptance for who he is and instead overhears people constantly discussing what should be done about “her.” And while Clara also doesn’t use his preferred pronouns, she’s the lone defender of the fact that maybe it’s not that something’s wrong but that people must be understood in different ways.
This film’s setting half a century ago leans heavy on tradition and cultures that were not ready for varying gender identities and sexual orientations. One uncomfortable scene finds Andrea refusing to smile for a photo because his grandmother has put him in a dress, which doesn’t match anything about him. Because of his lack of reference to anyone like him, Andrea doesn’t know that language to express himself, and finds solace only in one peer who sees him for who he is and doesn’t ask demeaning or prying questions. Though Clara can’t relate to this particular expression of self, she knows what it’s like to not be seen and to have everyone assume that she’s the problem rather than someone worthy of respect.
Director Emanuele Crialese (who recently came out as trans) fills the film with vibrant colors, costumes, and sets that transport audiences back to this era of his own youth. A shot of Clara getting her hair done appeared in the montage shown before every single film shown at Sundance, and the small, warm smile she cracks is emblematic of Cruz’s performance, one that finds delight and love in so many moments. It’s also tinged with misery, something she tries hard not to show to her children. Luana Giuliani, who is female-identifying, makes her film debut with an impressive, involving turn as Andrea, combining frustration, excitement, curiosity, and sadness quite effectively. Imagined dance numbers and performances and music by Rauelsson enhance a film that has compelling protagonists but never really reaches a particular apex. B