‘L’Immensità’: a movie to make a song and dance about…
Emotionally charged and aesthetically beautiful, plus an iconic dance sequence, Penélope Cruz’s latest film is a surprising delight, says Hanna Flint
Saturday 12 August 2023 By Hanna Flint
I love a dance sequence in a film. Not specifically in a movie musical where there’s a certain expectation that a few jazz hands or pirouettes will be thrown into the mix. What I mean is when it comes out of left field and takes us deeper into the character of the person who happens to be spontaneously cavorting.
I remember watching She’s All That as a tween and cringing into my sofa as Matthew Lillard’s choreographed introduction as the ‘Real World’ reality star Brock engulfed the TV screen. Throwing some ridiculously mediocre shapes as Rick James’s ‘Give It To Me Baby’ blasts out of the house party speakers made it very clear that Brock was an obnoxious antagonist we weren’t meant to root for. Laugh at him, though? Of course, Lillard’s narcissistic theatrics provided more than a few opportunities.
More recently, Mads Mikkelsen blew my mind with his final act performance in Another Round. A former gymnast and dancer himself, the Danish actor put his skills to work in Thomas Vinterberg’s film about four middle-aged teachers who put a theory (about maintaining drunkenness to achieve happiness) to the test. Martin (Mikkelsen) had lost sight of who he was as a husband, father, teacher and man, but by the end of the film he has found himself again. There on a pier, among his graduating students and, admittedly, a little drunk, Martin finds his feet to the tune of ‘What A Life’ by the Danish band Scarlet Pleasure, and explodes into a full-on performance. It’s a moment of unadulterated catharsis.
Now I can add L'Immensità to that heady gallery of frolicking delight. Italian filmmaker Emanuele Crialese’s semi-autobiographical period drama centres on a mother and child trapped by gendered expectations. Set in 1970s Rome, Clara (Penélope Cruz) is a depressed housewife stuck in a loveless marriage. She’s supposed to just accept her husband’s infidelity while her daughter, Adri (Luana Giuliani), is expected to surrender to the rigid gender binary of school and wider society, despite experiencing gender dysmorphia and preferring to go by the name Andrew. They are both aliens – Clara as a Spanish expatriate and Adri in his female body – distressed by their unbending circumstances. But music and dance offers some respite.
Cruz is justly getting comparisons to Sophia Loren, but she shines in her own right. Her exquisite, intrinsic ability to switch from despair to delight is never more potent than in an early scene where she and her children lay the table for dinner to the sound of Raffaella Carrà’s ‘Rumore/ Si, Ci Sto’. She puts her adult woes to one side and disappears into an energetic singalong with her brood, injecting herself with some much-needed joie de vivre.
For Adri, especially, there are few places where he can live freely as a boy. Catholic school is definitely not one of them. Gender there is black and white, literally. Girls wear white smocks, boys wear black, and Adri’s frustration at being forced to be categorised as female is clear by the dark cloud that shadows his face every time he’s there. School is not a safe space, but his imagination is. During an assembly, where the students have gathered to sing a hymn, the scene seamlessly transforms from colour into black and white.
Adri leads a spirited rendition of the TV performance he had watched with his mother. School uniforms are swapped for replica costumes, with Adri playing the role of Italian singer Adriano Celentano singing his gibberish parody tune ‘Prisencolinensinainciusol’. Liberated by song, dance and this fantasy realm, Adri has never looked more comfortable in his skin or secure in his identity. It’s a gorgeous scene that also reflects the freedom of an adolescent mindset where anything is possible if you can just think it – even if it’s as simple as letting you and your mother dance your troubles away for a moment.
‘When life is really frustrating, we go to the movies,’ says Crialese. ‘A different representation of life. It’s relieving. My mother never went to a mental asylum. That’s what I feared. The real “coming out” is escaping my fears and portraying my desire as a child: to see my mother in Raffaella Carrà’s place in a TV show.’
L’Immensità could have been a more pedestrian family drama about bourgeois malaise or a harrowing portrait of gender identity. Instead, Crialese elevates this film by daring to use song and dance outside of its prescribed setting. The result is a visually, aesthetically and emotionally dynamic story that captures the immensity of living.
Visit our screenings page to find out where you can see our full film schedule at the Houses.