Review: In L’Immensita, a Trans Boy Tries to Make Sense of Life in 1970 Rome

A child today who realizes that the gender they were assigned at birth is not the gender they are can draw on some resources—depending on their parents and the state where they live, of course. But in 1970 Rome, the word “trans” isn’t common, and a young person doesn’t know how to describe gender identity. In the richly emotional Italian/French film L’Immensita, young Andrew/Adriana (Luana Giuliani) tries to communicate to his parents that he is their son, not their daughter. 

As his sweet and considerate mother, Penelope Cruz (Parallel Mothers) is as supportive as a mom could be in that era. Adriana, nicknamed Adri, is played by newcomer Giuliani in a deeply moving performance that portends a future movie career. 

Writer/director Emanuele Crialese (Terraferma, Respiro) has created a storyline led by the matriarch Clara and her joy with her three children—young Diana (Maria Chiara Goretti), middle child Gino (Patricio Francioni) and Adri. Her husband, the distant and unfaithful Felice (Vincenzo Amato) is barely part of the family for most of the film. He argues with Clara about how she treats Adri. “She thinks she’s a boy…. Other families make fun of us. It’s humiliating,” he says.

Adri, with no words to define himself, says he’s an alien, born in another galaxy. He dresses in boy's clothes and escapes in his imagination to a black-and-white song and dance movie world. Giuliani’s eyes and facial expressions, which the director features in frequent closeups, often tell Adri’s story without dialogue. 

Some of his happiest moments come when he meets a Roma girl named Sara (Penelope Nieto Conti), whose family is part of a worker community on the “other side of the reeds,” where Adri has been told not to go. Sara accepts his boyhood and they have a sweet young teen relationship—until her community is broken up and the Roma families are sent away. 

The film takes us through a series of family scenes with Clara and Felice’s multi-generational family, as well as exuberant scenes of Clara with her three children, such as the opening scene where Clara and the kids dance and sing to a record while they set the dinner table. 

The Rome where Clara and her family live is not the tourist Rome of monuments and cathedrals. It’s a Rome of shops and neighborhoods, the kids’ Catholic school, a park where families gather for celebrations. Other locations move away from the domestic, such as the family vacation to the seaside. While Adri, Gino and Diana are swimming in the sea, a boy cousin asks Adri why he never takes his shirt off. Because of the sun, Adri says—and he doesn’t like sunscreen. 

Director Crialese made headlines at the Venice Film Festival last year when he told reporters that the film was influenced by his own experiences growing up. He said he was assigned female at birth and now, after difficult teenage years similar to Adri’s, lives as a trans man. 

The film’s title (the word means immensity or vastness in Italian) is drawn from a 1967 pop song by Johnny Dorelli and Don Backy. Backy sings it over the credits. You can see Dorelli perform the song here

L’Immensita opens Friday, May 19, in theaters, including the Music Box Theatre. 

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.