Director Emanuele Crialese discusses his autobiographical new film, starring Penélope Cruz and Luana Giuliani
“You and Dad made me wrong,” announces 12-year-old Adri (Luana Giuliani) to his mother, Clara (Penélope Cruz). “I’m not Adriana.” When Clara comments that Adri isn’t Andrew either, the distressed boy responds, “See, I come from another galaxy, and you don’t have the powers to fix me.”
In L’immensità, an Italian coming-of-age feature directed by Emanuele Crialese, Adri’s loneliness is so all-consuming that the sci-fi terminology feels appropriate. A child assigned female at birth, Adri doesn’t believe he belongs to the universe, let alone his family household in 1970s Rome. While Clara is sympathetic to an extent, she’s unsure of how to react, and Adri’s father is a flat-out violent menace. Struggling with gender dysphoria, Adri vanishes into his imagination, which, for him, may as well be another galaxy.
If L’immensità feels personal, it’s because Crialese, a 58-year-old Italian filmmaker, partly based the screenplay upon his own childhood. Moreover, at the 2022 Venice Film Festival press conference for L’immensità, Crialese came out as a transgender man, informing journalists, “I was born biologically a woman, but that does not mean that I don’t have in me a huge part [that is a] female character. That is probably the best part of me.”
In August, shortly before the UK theatrical release, Crialese has further thoughts on why Adri makes his intergalactic remark. “I know that particular experience because it was my experience,” the director tells me over Zoom. “In that particular case, at that period, at that time – and even now, I guess – you really don’t understand what’s going on. You really perceive yourself in one way, but everybody else perceives you in a different way. You have two options: either they’re crazy, or you’re crazy.
“The strategy, if you’re a child, is to say, ‘Maybe I don’t belong here. The fact I am who I am, and I feel how I feel, means that I don’t belong to this Earth. Maybe I come from somewhere else, a place where people like me are like me, and I can live happily with people that are like me.’ That’s a very childish way to react to a situation you don’t understand, but it’s truthful.”
From the get-go, Crialese establishes that L’immensità will possess fun and fantasy amidst the heavy subject matter. Adri isn’t the only one who needs it, either. At the breakfast table, Clara, revealed later to be abused and miserable, instils a sense of wonder into her three children through a musical number set to Raffaella Carrà’s 1974 electropop hit “Rumore/Sì, ci sto”, incorporating plates, a swinging tablecloth, and amateur acrobatics into the choreography. It’s a method of escapism adopted by Adri during dream sequences, including one so evocative that Crialese forbids me from describing it in the article.
“There’s no happiness without sadness,” Crialese explains. “The film establishes explosive joy and a really deep, abyssal darkness… Many children live in a frustrating situation that they cannot escape, that they cannot fight. What do they do? They play with fantasy. Sometimes they become artists, sometimes they get sick. But many of them become artists because they’ve found a surviving strategy due to an impossible reality to cope with.”
Crialese quotes a Billie Eilish lyric: “When I was older, I was a sailor.” There are moments where Adri, the director explains, can envision his future in the adult world. “He has a look that says, ‘When I was older.’ A child kind of knows what his destiny will be.” Tellingly, the only film Crialese cites during the interview is The 400 Blows, namely the ending when Antoine Doinel stares into the camera. “I’ll never forget that look. Where am I going? Rejected by my father and mother, what will I become? He became François Truffaut.”
However, L’immensità is Crialese’s first semi-autobiographical feature, and also his first since 2011’s Terraferma. In three decades, he’s only directed five features, including 2002’s Respiro, which won multiple prizes at Cannes, and the Martin Scorsese-approved 2006 migration drama Nuovomondo. Crialese reasons that he’s driven by passion, not a calendar. “10 years ago, I made a film about immigration, about a holocaust that’s going on in the sea today, and apparently nobody cares. That was urgent to me, because human rights were, and still are, being completely smashed by a rich society… Today, [L’immensità] is the most urgent thing for me to say.”
“Many children live in a frustrating situation that they cannot escape, that they cannot fight. What do they do? They play with fantasy” – Emanuele Crialese
In Terraferma, Crialese depicted the plight of Ethiopian refugees who arrive in Sicily on a raft. “10 years ago, that was the most urgent thing to say. [After being] an immigrant in the US, I know what feeling misplaced feels like. And in the particular case [of L’immensità], I know what feeling misplaced in your body and society feels like.”
To cast Adri, Crialese researched young girls who competed in traditionally male sports, which was when he discovered Luana Giuliani, a motorcycle racer. “She was 10 years old and a bullet,” the director recalls. “She was fast, dangerous, and competitive. I just felt that she was the character.” Then COVID delayed the shoot for years. “She started to have the shapes of a girl, and the screenplay wasn’t made for that. She was supposed to be 10 years old, but the accident made the story, and her character, much more interesting.”
Adopting a short haircut that infuriates his father, 12-year-old Adri wanders into a campsite populated by Travellers and finds romance with a non-judgemental girl, Sara (Penelope Nieto Conti); together, the young duo are a sharp contrast to Clara’s broken marriage. While Cruz has played several mothers before, Crialese insists that Clara is a brand new role for the Spanish actor; thousands of shots of Cruz were studied by the cinematographer to avoid repetition. “She’s an abused woman with a passion, living in Italian culture, doing many, many things. She’s Patty Pravo, Raffaella Carrà, she’s the fantasy [of Adri]… Penélope’s face and body has been on screens for two decades, and you don’t want her to remind you of somebody you’ve seen already.”
Throughout L’immensità, Carla assists Adri in his escapist fantasies, emulating both Pravo and Carrà in bravura set-pieces, but it’s only because Carla is all too willing to find an exit herself. It could be that Carla, too, a depressed wannabe singer in a loveless marriage, also feels like she belongs to another galaxy, albeit for entirely different reasons from Adri.
“Everyone feels differently,” says Crialese. “But there’s a moment in life where many people, even without being minorities or having mental health problems, ask a question: ‘Hey, are we human here?’ Maybe we don’t say we come from another galaxy, but we look up, and ask God, the universe, Allah, Buddha, ‘What the hell is going on?’ We all do that, so that must be something we share. Minorities, majorities, it’s there in all of us.”
L’immensità is out in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from August 11