This L’immensità review contains mild spoilers.
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The first time I ever traveled outside the United States was for a high school study abroad trip in Italy. I spent three weeks going to museums and cathedrals, tasting independence, and watching Italian cinema. These three weeks were the closest I came to coming out until seven years later — even if my understanding of transness was as incomplete as my understanding of the Italian language.
One of the films I watched in my Italian cinema course was Emanuele Crialese’ Golden Doors, a turn of the century tale of Italian immigrants coming to the US. I liked the movie, but it didn’t capture my baby trans girl heart like anything with Monica Vitti or Giulietta Masina.
An obvious statement: every trans person had their own childhood. We asserted ourselves in different ways, to different degrees. We knew ourselves in different ways, to different degrees. Even those of us without the language, even those of us sheltered from any sort of queerness, were surrounded by each other.
At 16, in an arts program mostly populated by other girls, a week before I’d dress in drag for the first time, and seven years before I’d know a word like “transgender” could describe me, I watched a film made by a trans director. I had no idea.
Emanuele Crialese says that his stunning new film L’immensità shouldn’t be seen as a coming out. “I’ve always been out,” he told an interviewer. “I’m not a rock star. Why would people care about me?” I appreciate this dismissive response, this joke in the face of cis press crafting a narrative. But for me, for other trans viewers, this public coming out does matter. Not for the headline — for the cinema.
L’immensità is about a young trans boy named Adri growing up in 1970s Rome. Since it’s the 70s and Adri is in a traditional bourgeoisie family, the word trans is not uttered. There’s just a vague understanding that Adri wants to be a boy — a fact his kind but troubled mother Clara accepts and his stern and abusive father Felice does not.
Even if I didn’t know this was Crialese’s personal story, I’d know his familiarity with transness just from watching the film. I have seen several trans coming-of-age films — few with this amount of specificity, nuance, and imagination. It is at once very focused on Adri’s dysphoria and could work as the story of an eldest cis son trying his best to protect his younger siblings and his loving, eccentric mother from their dad. The movie understands that for most of us gender was just one aspect of our childhood, while somehow quietly impacting every other part.
Adri finds ways to create alternate worlds whether he’s exploring with his siblings, friends, and cousins, sharing private moments with his mom, or falling for a girl from a nearby worker colony. The film lives in these worlds. There’s a magic in nearly every moment Adri’s dad is not on-screen — a magic that sometimes results in a dreamy musical number.
Penélope Cruz gives one of her strongest performances as Clara. She is at once a real woman trying to survive the constricting gender dynamics of 1970s Italy and the romanticized maternal sprite of Adri’s perspective and Crialese’s memories. Adri is our eyes, but Clara is his world.
We can debate if L’immensità is Crialese’s coming out, but it’s certainly not his coming out story. Adri insists that he’s a boy — that doesn’t mean his world listens. Instead the film acts as a snapshot from a time much like when I went to Italy and saw Golden Doors, years before doing what society calls transition, years before real freedom would be possible.
This doesn’t feel sad. It feels invigorating. Crialese understands the bursts of light that manage to exist before. He understands the possibilities for more.
Trans kids have always existed and always will exist. This is the story of one of those trans kids — one who someday grows up to make movies.