Even before the title is displayed for the entry into competition at the Venice Film Festival The Immensity, we know Penelope Cruz is the funniest mom — probably the only fun mom — in town. She doesn’t just set the table for dinner; she puts on music, leads the children in a choreographed dance, and sings as she passes plates and cutlery, movingly into a passing fork as if it were a microphone. Adults bore him. At a birthday dinner for a former parent, she slips under the table to join her kids in removing and mixing everyone’s shoes. “I want to play!” she said, her eyes shining.
Her eldest, who is also reluctant to grow up for very different reasons, pushes her to sit back in her chair. She can see where this is leading. Mothers are not supposed to play games; they are supposed to play cards and have their hair done. In 1970s Rome, there are a lot of things you’re not supposed to do. Some of them, like hitting your wife if you are a father and head of household, you can get away with quite easily. Others, like wearing boy’s clothes when you’re born a girl, aren’t so easily dismissed.
Adriana (Luana Giulani) – called Adri as a kind of compromise, although she introduces herself as Andrea, a boy’s name in Italian, to foreigners – is 12 years old. So far, Adri is thankfully flat-chested; we first see her on the roof of their building, coiling wires into an elaborate pentagram that’s supposed to house the kind of intergalactic energy that, as she cryptically puts it, “will do a miracle.” A few weeks later, she pushes her way through a pile of dusty hosts with the same hope, giving herself asthma in the process. It’s a race against time.
Clara de Cruz and her husband Felice (Vincenzo Amato) hate each other. Divorce is newly legal, but separation is out of the question; there is no family outing. Their children – Adri, Gino (Patrizio Francioni) and even little Diana (Maria Chiara Goretti) adore their mother, shun their father and watch over the tensions between them, resisting the patriarchy in their own home with the small acts of rebellion they can collect. Adri regularly visits a nearby Roma camp, where she shyly woos a girl called Sara who may or may not realize she’s not really a boy, mostly while playing chase. It’s very sweetly pre-pubescent and uncertain, because who knows where Adri’s identity will end up landing?
Emanuele Crialese describes his film as a journey down a Roman memory lane, to a time of endless variety shows on Italian television, Polaroids and garishly colored, highly flammable furniture. Despite bringing together some ostensibly heavy subject matter – and a topic currently loaded in Adri’s gender dysphoria, which will no doubt draw criticism from those looking for something closer to a statement – Crialese maintains an airy tone, a garish palette and the glow of a more innocent time, however deceptive that appearance of innocence.
With that in mind, he chose a handful of contemporary pop songs as the musical backdrops mimicking those old TV variety shows, in which the family becomes stars and schoolgirl choirs camp it out in dance numbers by the thousands. Nothing could be campier than the originals, no doubt, but there’s a visceral, nerdy thrill to seeing Penelope Cruz play a go-go girl while Adri lip-synchs to Italian TV’s response to Johnny Cash.
It ends with a cabaret number, the festive culmination of the family’s history. Nothing is resolved; no one’s chances of happiness are greater than they were at the beginning; all that can be said about it is that at least they bought a new sofa, even if it seems no less likely than the old one to catch fire. Stop thinking about it and The Immensity is basically quite dark, but it puts on a delightfully cheerful face.