Review: Imagining the possibilities of life in the touching Italian drama ‘L’immensità’

There is a certain beauty of childhood that many filmmakers struggle to materialize onscreen. To be a child is to exist inside a world within a world, one governed by its own forms and rituals as well as the vastness and curiosity of the unknown. Certainly, the autonomy to be found in childhood largely exists in the margins: in hidden spaces of play and conflict and in working around and through the guiding words of adults and caregivers. There is a careful, almost anxious, slippage of realities that children engage with to best express themselves, something that doesn’t often lend itself to easy translation.

It is fitting then that, with his newest film, “L’immensità,” trans director Emanuele Crialese indulges in these child-like methods of world-making with a sensitive eye. Based on the Italian filmmaker’s own childhood, “L’immensità” follows the turbulent dynamics of a nuclear family living in 1970s Rome. Taking on the point of view of 12-year-old Andrew (Luana Giuliani) — one of three siblings and the eldest child of unhappily married couple Clara (Penélope Cruz) and Felice (Vincenzo Amato) — Crialese maps out a family that seems almost desperate to find freedom from itself.

Andrew is quiet but ever observant, and his experience of youth is inextricable from the navigation of his own gender. Referred to as Adri by the rest of his family, Andrew (who was assigned female at birth) often draws the fury of his short-tempered father, a philandering and abusive businessman who struggles to understand his child’s refusal of gendered expectations with any sort of grace or care. His is a deeply flawed model of masculinity that diverges from Andrew’s own exploration of gender in every way possible.

Clara, a Spanish expat, is Andrew’s refuge. While, like Andrew, she lacks the vocabulary to support her son, there is a carefree joy and sense of play that she brings to the world around her that opens up a space for him to exist within. It’s a kind of maternal compassion that tries its best to refuse judgment, even if its boundaries and limitations are as confusing as they are relatively safer.

While the trope of a mother who is as abruptly radiant as she is teary is more than well-trod territory by now, Cruz brings a light to her performance of Clara that opens up possibilities for her children. With highs that rival her lows, she is nonetheless a mother who centers play and imagination in the care of her children and, as a story drawn from the filmmaker’s own experience, there is a clear beauty in this kind of memory work.

Buoyed by strong performances from both Cruz and newcomer Giuliani, “L’immensità” patterns its dramatics with musical sequences as imagined by Andrew. Full of feeling and nostalgia for 1970s Italian pop culture, these homages see mother and son in starring roles, finally able to fully shake free of the limitations they both endure. There is a playful melancholy to these moments — a wistfulness that comes from Andrew’s deep need to both see his mother as well as be seen by her with full transparency. It is the kind of vulnerability that comes forth once one knows that different realities are possible.

While perhaps not the strongest entry in Crialese’s filmography, “L’immensità” certainly gives life to a beautifully affirming mother-son relationship that endures onscreen. A love letter to its characters and their real-life counterparts, the film is, above all, a witness to the kind of expansive love and kinship that is formed in the margins but nonetheless expansive in its imaginings of the world.


In Italian with English subtitles
Not rated
Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes
Playing: Starts Friday at Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles

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