Emanuele Crialese on 'L'Immensità,' Penelope Cruz and Transgender Politics

Emanuele Crialese on ‘L’Immensità,’ Penelope Cruz and Transgender Politics

Emanuele Crialese, 58, director of the cult film Breath (Critic Week Award at Cannes in 2002) was born in Rome to Sicilian parents, studied at NYU and made his debut with We were once strangers in 1997. Before that he had already passed from woman to man, from Emanuela to Emanuele.

Breath was a hit in France and then around the world, and Crialese followed it up, four years later, with Golden Gate, which won the Silver Lion for Revelation in Venice in 2006. Five years later, Terraferma di Crialese won the Venice Special Jury Prize. Now, a decade later, Crialese is back with The Immensity, an autobiographical story set in 1970s Rome about a child who does not identify with the gender assigned to him at birth. The child’s mother is played by a magnificent Penelope Cruz, the father by Crialese’s alter ego, Vincenzo Amato. After last year’s Venice premiere, The Immensity screened at Sundance in January to critical raves. The film had a limited U.S. release last month through Music Box Films.

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Crialese has spoken THR Rome about the “painful, then enlightening” process of exploring her own history to create her imaginary portrait of gender dysphoria, why she loves working with children and the political message behind her film. “We live in a political climate that looks for enemies and easy targets, but the real enemy is fear”.

Is this film rooted in your personal history?

The protagonist’s point of view is mine. That’s my theme: gender identity. It’s my story. But I made it into a movie, that’s the point. All the rest is fodder, fuzz and morbidity. An obvious and petty way to get the attention of the press. If I had wanted to advertise myself I would have ridden the wave of transgression. But I decided to work behind the camera, not in front of it. I narrate and stage images, I direct actors. This is what I do, and what I would like to continue doing and being.

You’ve often said it wasn’t easy. In which way?

No, it was not easy to communicate this simple fact. But the issue of denied rights, this phobia that seems to infect the world, I want to address. I will address this in another context. There’s a lot to say, a lot to think about; one movie is not enough. We live in a political climate that looks for enemies and easy targets, that shoots blindly at issues that are mere “distractors”, non-existent social threats: us, us. The real problems are something else and there is a desire to look elsewhere to avoid looking within oneself. The enemy is inside, not outside. The enemy is fear, which induces fear. Real threats are something else.

I felt the urge to talk about migrants in my previous films. Courage, the right to move elsewhere, to seek a better life, to find a peaceful way of living together by welcoming otherness as a fundamental and vital part of the one gender to which we all belong, which is called “humanity”.

Looking at ourselves from another planet, with the eyes of an alien, one would say that we are behaving like a deadly and unstoppable virus. We are destroying each other. We are destroying the house where our children will live. This is the threat. Looking inward is trying to change individually, instead of wanting to change others. Free yourself from the dependence of wanting to dominate the other, resist the compulsion of having, of appearing and maybe try to focus a little more on being. Abandon gender, race and sexual orientation classifications, because they do not define us, rather they limit us and create barriers that divide; we are what we are in perpetual change. Human nature is inherently unpredictable and immense. We are more than the classifying names we give to recognize ourselves. And the time has come when we have to invent new words if we want to communicate in the new world we live in. Dostoevsky wrote: “Taking a new step, saying a new word, is what people fear most.”

Let’s go back to the movie. The story of a 12-year-old girl who doesn’t identify with her gender. She falls in love with a peer. She has two younger brothers, a Spanish mother and a Sicilian, macho, controlling father. We are in Rome in the 70s.

Here it is. It is set in the 70s. You have to remember those years. I recreated them as I experienced them, as I remember them. A suburb under construction, a place that could be anywhere, high-rise buildings bordering a camp of construction workers, southern Italian families living on the edge of the construction site. Life in, life out. A traditional bourgeois family, a marital crisis, a man cheating on his wife. Children absorbing lack of love, each suffering from their own lack of synchronicity with family and social expectations. A child does not eat; the other eats too much. The protagonist, her older sister Adriana, believes she is a creature from outer space. Perhaps female, perhaps male, perhaps both, perhaps different from all that is known and knowable. A new word, unspeakable and unknown. S/he knows the path; it is the others who lose the ability to focus, who cannot tolerate anything that claims to be indefinable, unclassifiable. As if being human wasn’t enough. As if identifying with a straight male or female, gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender was much more important than recognizing yourself as a “human being”. Yes, I know I repeat myself, but it’s important to me.

When did you start thinking about this film?

I do not know. I’ve thought about it all my life, I guess. Being able to shoot it was a revolutionary experience for me. It was very painful at first, then it was enlightening. I looked for the gaze of a child. I shot it from a child’s point of view. I tried not to be a preacher, not to give in to self-pity. Breaking from narrative stereotypes where characters like me die tragically. People want to see them defeated. They cannot survive happily. But the reality is another. We can exist and we can express ourselves, we can also be happy, have a job and be recognized for what we do rather than what is or isn’t between our legs. I’m very fond of my native country, my culture, but I can’t deny that without the US and France I probably wouldn’t be a working filmmaker. I had to emigrate to become who I am. I like to live and explore new territories.

One of the American reviews of the film said it was not “well-intentioned”, as it does not dwell on the experience of persecution and marginalization. Instead Adri, the protagonist, is a human being in search of her place in the world.

Because it is what it is. A person’s life is an architecture, a complex organism. I wanted to portray the life, pain and uncertainty of adolescence in the face of adult expectations. I wanted to describe the need to be seen and accepted for who you are. The burden of judgement. Suffering from the pain you cause in the lives of others when you don’t match their expectations. I showed, I think, a family. Any family. A place where everyone can see themselves reflected. We all have damage, a fracture. We all know the distance that can appear between who we are, what we look like and what we want.

How did you find Luana Giuliani, the pre-adolescent who embodies Adriana/Andrea?

I searched among girls who play sports that are considered “boy” sports. Luana rides a motorcycle. She is a prodigy. I’m always afraid that she will get hurt. I shouldn’t say this, but I wish she would stop racing motorcycles. I am so fond of her.

You have a great relationship with the kids on set. You take care of them like a father. Do you miss not having a child?

This is a great question. In all my films there are children. The look of innocence. A look we’ve all had. The bravery. The fragility. Working with children is like working with great teachers of truth. I need it. Always. I need to find that point of view: in myself, in others. In older actors I love to find the ability to be or go back to being children. That sense of confidence and playfulness.

In the film, Penelope Cruz plays a very lonely woman. A misunderstood and lost stranger. It is only in the fantasy sequences in which she embodies (Italian singer and queer icon) Raffaella Carrà that she gets rid of her.

Penelope allowed herself to be led to places of unbridled wilderness, of profound truth, with a truly rare generosity, humanity and professionalism. I call her “the shamaness”.

And Vincenzo Amato, your actor and guide?

More than a guide, he is my gleefully guided actor. I feel Cassavettian in this. I love working with friends. I have known Vincenzo for 30 years. We met in New York. He was an iron sculptor, he worked as a blacksmith and his hands were always burned. I went to school and worked nights in an Italian restaurant. We met on the stairs at night, at the end of a long day. We smoked and teased each other. Always in love with someone. Vincenzo is a bright, radically authentic person. He is an extraordinary artist.

What do you see in your future?

The future is a secret to be cultivated. The future: I wish it was a game I’ve never played.