Venice 2022 review: L’immensità (Emanuele Crialese)

“A sentimental melodrama that never gels into a coherent work, L’immensità is mainly interesting for the deeply personal ties Crialese has to the story.”

Some mothers only exist in movies, their memory becoming rosier over the years. Pedro Almodóvar practically made it a genre of its own, his oeuvre filled with idolized, nurturing women, the most emotional and personal portrayal of the lot being Jacinta in Pain & Glory, where Penélope Cruz is essentially a stand-in for Almodóvar’s own mother. Perhaps it’s the Cruz effect, but the Spanish actress playing another version of the ‘mythic mom’ in Emanuele Crialese’s latest film L’immensità, taken together with the primary colour scheme of the production design, immediately evokes the Spanish master. Nostalgic to a fault, L’immensità is sadly little more than a scattered selection of happy (and some not so happy) childhood fantasies with very little linking them together, leaving themes and storylines floating. A sentimental melodrama that never gels into a coherent work, L’immensità is mainly interesting for the deeply personal ties Crialese has to the story.

You and dad made me wrong.” After trying to chase off two men trying to get a little too close to her mother, young Adriana (Luana Giuliani) utters this phrase to the dismay of Clara (Cruz). It should not have come as a surprise though. The young girl clearly desires to be a boy, and it’s not just her haircut or the way she dresses that gives this away: she tells strangers her name is Andrew. One such stranger is Anna, a girl from the other side of the tracks (or reeds, in this case), to whom Adriana immediately feels an attraction. Going through the reeds means stepping into a carefree world for Adriana, one that gets her away from the deteriorating family situation at home. The marriage of her parents has lost its spark long ago, with Clara having to quietly endure the philandering ways of her husband. Her three children (Adriana has a younger brother and sister) are the only light in her life. During a conversation with other mothers in her extended family she claims to be wary of adults who think they are children, but in reality the joy in her life comes from the moments where she can be a kid among her own kids again. Her marriage is at a breaking point though, and it is starting to take a toll on not only her own sanity, but on Adriana’s attitude as well.

In a recent interview with Variety Crialese made it clear that Adriana is a version of himself, for the first time explicitly stating that he transitioned years ago. L’immensità is not fully autobiographical, but a representation of Crialese’s childhood and the memories of his mother. Given the close personal ties to this story, it is clear why it took Crialese so long to come out with new work after 2011’s Terraferma. Unsurprisingly, Adriana’s through line in the film, especially psychologically, is its strongest part. Newcomer Giuliani captures a specific distress in Adriana with inspiring intensity, a distress that comes both from within (her struggle with sexual identity) and without (the rising family tensions; her connection to her mother).

It is a through line made from a collage of memories with very little connection and context though, which lessens the investment in Adriana’s story and makes L’immensità a jumble of scenes that can be enjoyed on an individual level yet never form a whole. A musical scene with Giuliani and Cruz mimicking Adriano Celentano’s performance of his ’70s hit Prisencolinensinainciusol shown early in the film is an exquisite piece of nostalgia, but does little to contribute to its themes. Music plays an important role in Crialese’s harkening back to his childhood: the family (minus the father) setting the table in a dance routine set to Raffaella Carrà’s Rumore opens the film, and Cruz later embodies the singer in a cute black-and-white performance (and a horrible wig). These scenes are meant to show the tight bond between mother and kids, but they take up valuable screen time that could have been better spent deepening the psychology behind this bond.

Adriana’s budding romance with Anna (seemingly oblivious to the fact that the boy she is kissing is actually a girl), suffers a similar fate as it comes to a screeching halt when Anna and her community suddenly vanish from both their location and the film, their story having explained very little about Adriana. In many ways L’immensità falls into the same traps as Paolo Sorrentino’s recent The Hand of God, another filmmaker whose alter ego took a trip down memory lane in a film marred by too much nostalgia and too little coherence. Given that the identity struggle Crialese’s lead character goes through is even more fundamental and far-reaching than Sorrentino’s, a struggle which has in a way defined Crialese’s life, as he felt the need to keep it a secret until just a few days ago, it is a shame that L’immensità is too unfocused to register as the great film about gender identity that it could have been.