Rome in the 1970s is the setting for Emanuele Crialese’s latest film, featuring Penélope Cruz as a mother attempting to shield her three children, including 12-year-old gender non-conforming Adriana, from the consequences of her husband’s infidelity. Cruz shines, but the story is not hers.
I guess if you’re fortunate enough to have Penélope Cruz in your film, you’re going to darn well use her. Italian director Emanuele Crialese chose Cruz to play Clara, the lively expat mother of three living in 1970s Rome with her unfaithful husband Felice (Vincenzo Amato) and her children in his latest film L’immensità. Despite (or perhaps because of) her marital difficulties, Clara maintains strong bonds with her children Adriana (Luana Giulani), Gino (Patrizio Francioni), and Diana (María Chiara Goretti). She turns the setting of the table for a meal into a dance routine, starts a play-fight to ease tension during an argument, and joins in the children’s practical jokes when at a family party as an escape from the boredom of being an adult.
Cruz dominates each scene she appears in, with a dynamism and a hairstyle which both undoubtedly channel Sophia Loren in her classic period. She even becomes pop icon Raffaella Carrà in a black-and-white dream sequence which is very entertaining.
And yet. The disadvantage to having Penélope Cruz in your film is that she ends up dominating a story which seems to actually belong to someone else.
Twelve-year-old Adriana – the oldest of Clara’s children – is experiencing gender dysphoria, identifying as Andrea (a masculine name in Italian), particularly when meeting people who don’t know the family. Andrea develops a crush on Sara, the daughter of migrant workers who are living in make-shift accommodation near-by, and who accepts Andrea’s identity.
The protective, smothering bubble that Clara throws around her children to protect them from their father’s behaviour, and Clara’s personal emotional difficulties in holding everything together as a result, also dampen any possibility of Andrea discussing his identity with her. Clara is supposed to be the grown-up in the room, but doesn’t always act that way.
Director Emanuele Crialese acknowledges that the film is his most personal and has biographical elements, and so those scenes in which Andrea learns about his parents’ difficult marriage are seen or heard through slightly ajar doors or from a child’s hiding place. Andrea is constantly hiding or running away, and Cruz’s charisma ensures that she steals the show – a show which, in essence, should probably have belonged to Andrea.