Sundance 2023: L’immensita, by David Bax
As a genre, the coming of age movie is an oft-used one for a reason. It’s endlessly malleable in that every sort of person can come of any age at any time. Emanuele Crialese‘s L’immensità goes, in many ways, the usual route, focusing on a teenager burgeoning into young adulthood. Andrea (Luana Giuliani) is only just starting to realize just how big a world there is outside of the structure insisted on by his parents. The other side of that coin, though, is that he’s more aware of how difficult it will be for him to reach that world while he’s still a child. Crialese gets that aspect of the genre right. But, unfortunately, that’s only part of the story and he doesn’t do nearly as well with the rest of it.
What I haven’t mentioned so far is that Andrea is what we now know as a trans boy, making L’immensità a social issue drama with contemporary relevance even with its 1970s setting (of course, there were trans people then, too, as there have always been). Andrea (his chosen name, a masculine one in Italy) is repeatedly deadnamed and blamed for the family’s dysfunction. This is probably even harder given that words and terms like “transgender” “deadnaming” and “gender dysphoria” don’t exist in the vocabulary of any character in the movie.
Frustratingly, that’s also the root of the L’immensità‘s biggest problem. Crialese (along with his fellow screenwriters Francesca Manieri and Vittorio Moroni) can’t quite seem to imagine a trans character apart from transphobia and advocacy as they exist in our current culture. As a result, Andrea is less a character than an idea of the young trans kid struggling against adversity. Having constructed this dynamic, Crialese apparently thought the only option–the only way to make Andrea the protagonist against the antagonism of bigotry–is to make him perfect. He’s noble, standing up not only for himself but for his female classmates and their own struggles with misogyny and rape culture (another term that didn’t exist at the time but is very clearly meant to be evoked by the film). He’s ultimately too free of flaws to feel the least bit real. Melodrama is not a pejorative but dishonest movies like L’immensità add to its bad reputation.
As with his likely best known film to date, 2002’s Respiro, Crialese is banking on the star power of his female lead to carry the movie on her back. Then, it was the great Valeria Golino. Now it’s the also great Penélope Cruz. Cruz does her best as Andrea’s mom, Clara, a happy mother but an unhappy wife who’s more likely to be under the table with the kids at a dinner party than carrying on boring conversations up top with the adults. But L’immensità is too clunky and programmatic for her to rescue.
It’s only when Crialese falls back on music that he seems free and comfortable enough to do more filmmaking than point-making. He opens the film with a dance number, choreographed by Clara and her children, set to Rafaella Carrà’s “Rumore/Sì, ci sto” and later employs Adriano Celentano’s immortal “Prisencolinensinainciusol,” quite simply one of the coolest songs of all time. But, while I can recommend vibing out on the soundtrack, I can’t say the same for watching the movie.