Tolstoy famously wrote that while all happy families are alike, each unhappy one is so in its own particular way. This ravishing, velvety melodrama from Italy’s Emanuele Crialese serves as a living illustration of the point. Set in the Rome of the 1970s, L’Immensità is a child’s-eye-view portrait of domestic sadness and the craving for escape from it: its scenes have the tingling specificity of formative memory, where peculiar, attention-snagging details somehow serve as lightning rods for the emotions crackling overhead.
Crialese’s film is not straightforward autobiography, but it does reflect the life of its director in one fascinating respect. Hours before this evening’s premiere at Venice, the avuncular 57-year-old disclosed at a press conference that he had been “born, biologically, a woman,” and that the teenage girl at the centre of his film was a now not-so-veiled self-portrait.
Dauntlessly played by first-time actress Luana Giuliani, her name is Adriana – though she often introduces herself with the male name Andrea, and seems to harbour a suspicion she hails from another galaxy – and when we first catch sight of her she’s improvising a beam-me-up symbol on the roof of her chic apartment block. Her mother, Clara, is played by Penélope Cruz, in a thrillingly old-fashioned performance of Sophia Loren-like vivacity and poise: she’s the lioness-like matriarch, devoted to her cubs.
Judging by their luxuriously appointed modernist apartment, Clara’s suave husband, Felice (a deeply plausible Vincenzo Amato), is the picture of midlife success, though he also brims with a quiet, nonspecific distaste for his wife and children, turning family life into a sort of Cold War in microcosm, in which violent flare-ups punctuate the uneasy peace.
Adriana’s yearning to be male might be tied up in her determination to avoid her mother’s own fate, who when she isn’t being beaten or otherwise abused at home is catcalled and harassed in the street. But it also becomes a means of exploring her attraction to a working-class girl whose family lives in a nearby shack: a proactive opting-out of the life that seems to lie ahead as an accident of birth.
Crialese and his co-writers, Francesca Manieri and Vittorio Moroni, explore Adriana’s shifting identity with a complexity, nuance and psychological honesty that all defy easy answers. They also invest scenes of family life with a dreamlike quality. On a group holiday, while the mothers play cards in the garden and the fathers abscond in stylish suits to goodness-knows-where, Adriana takes the younger children on a ramble through a nearby drainage system, resulting in the wonderful sight of the women wandering confusedly over the manicured lawns, listening to the voices of their offspring seep up from underfoot.
Perhaps some of the magic-realist interludes are a little heavy-footed: one black-and-white song-and-dance number would have probably sufficed. But for all its decorative twists and curls, this is a sophisticated, searching work.
Screening at the Venice Film Festival. A UK release has yet to be announced