Even before the title flashes up for Venice Film Festival competition entry L’Immensita, we know that Penelope Cruz is the most fun mom – most likely the only fun mom – in town. She doesn’t just set the table for dinner; she puts on music, leads the kids in a choreographed dance and singalong as they pass plates and cutlery, emoting into a passing fork as if it were a microphone. Adults bore her. At a birthday dinner for an ancient relative, she slips under the table to join her children in removing and mixing up everyone’s shoes. “I want to play!” she says, eyes gleaming.
Her eldest child, who is also reluctant to grow up for her own, very different reasons, urges her to get back on her chair. She can see where this is leading. Mothers aren’t supposed to play games; they are supposed to play cards and get their hair done. In 1970s Rome, there are a lot of things you aren’t supposed to do. Some of them, like hitting your wife if you are a father and head of the house, you can get away with quite easily. Others, like wearing boys’ clothes when you were born a girl, are not so easily dismissed.
Adriana (Luana Giulani) – called Adri as a sort of compromise, although she introduces herself as Andrea, a boys’ name in Italian, to strangers – is 12. So far, Adri is mercifully flat-chested; we first see her on the roof of their apartment block, winding threads into an elaborate pentangle that is supposed to harbor the kind of intergalactic energy that will, as she puts it cryptically, “make a miracle.” A few weeks later, she munches her way through a pile of dusty communion wafers with the same hope, giving herself asthma in the process. It’s a race against the roll of time.
Cruz’s Clara and her husband Felice (Vincenzo Amato) detest each other. Divorce is newly legal, but separation is out of the question; there is no wriggling out of family. Their children – Adri, Gino (Patrizio Francioni) and even little Diana (Maria Chiara Goretti) adore their mother, give their father a wide berth and monitor the tensions between them, resisting the patriarchy in their own home with whatever small acts of rebellion they can muster. Adri regularly visits a nearby Roma camp, where she shyly courts a girl called Sara who may or may not realize she isn’t really a boy, mostly by playing chase. It is very sweetly pre-pubescent and uncertain, because who knows where Adri’s identity will eventually land?
Emanuele Crialese describes his film as a trip down a Roman memory lane, into an era of endless variety shows on Italian television, Polaroids and garishly colored, highly flammable furniture. Despite marshaling some ostensibly heavyweight subjects – and a currently fraught one in Adri’s gender dysphoria, which will undoubtedly draw criticism from those looking for something closer to a statement – Crialese maintains a breezy tone, a gaudy palette and the glow of a more innocent time, however misleading that veneer of innocence was.
In that spirit, he has chosen a handful of contemporary pop songs as musical set-pieces imitating those old television variety shows, in which the family become stars and choruses of schoolgirls camp it up in cast-of-thousands dance numbers. Nothing could be camper than the originals, no doubt, but there is a visceral, cheesy thrill in seeing Penelope Cruz playing a go-go girl while Adri lip-syncs to Italian television’s answer to Johnny Cash.
It ends with a cabaret number, a festive culmination to the family’s story. Nothing is resolved; nobody’s chances of happiness are any greater than they were at the beginning; the most you can say about that is that at least they have bought a new couch, even if it looks no less likely than the old one to burst into flames. Stop to think about it and L’Immensita is fundamentally quite bleak, but it wears a delightfully cheerful face.