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

Emanuele Crialese, 58, director of the cult film Respiro (Critics’ Week Award at Cannes in 2002) was born in Rome to Sicilian parents, studied at NYU and made his debut with Once We Were Strangers in 1997. Before that, he had already transitioned from female to male, from Emanuela to Emanuele.

Respiro was a success in France and then worldwide, and Crialese followed it up, four years later, with Golden Door, which took the Revelation Silver Lion award in Venice in 2006. Five years after that, Crialese’s Terraferma won Venice’s special jury prize. Now, a decade later, Crialese is back with L’Immensità, an autobiographical story set in 1970s Rome of a child who does not identify with the gender assigned to them 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, L’Immensità screened at Sundance in January to critical raves. The film bowed in the U.S. in limited release last month through Music Box Films.

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Crialese spoke to THR Roma about the “painful, then enlightening” process of exploring his own story to create his fictional portrait of gender dysphoria, why he loves working with children and the political message behind his film. “We live in a political climate that looks for easy enemies and targets, [but the real] enemy is fear.”

Is this film rooted in your own personal history?

The point of view of the protagonist is my own. It is my theme: gender identity. It’s my story. But I made it into a film, that’s the point. Everything else is fodder, fluff and morbidity. An obvious, small-minded way to grab attention in the press. If I had wanted to get publicity I would have surfed 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’d like to continue doing and being.

You’ve said, often, that it has not been easy. In what way?

No, it has not been easy to communicate this simple fact. But the issue of denied rights, this phobia that seems to be infecting the world, I want to confront it. I will confront it in another context. There is much to say, much to think about; one film is not enough. We live in a political climate that looks for easy enemies and targets, that shoots blindly at issues that are mere “distractors,” nonexistent social threats: we, us. The real problems are something else and there is a desire to look elsewhere to avoid looking inside ourselves. The enemy is inside, not outside. The enemy is fear, inducing fear. Real threats are something different.

I felt the urgency to talk about migrants in my previous films. The courage, the right to move elsewhere, to seek a better life, to find a peaceful way of coexisting by welcoming otherness as a foundational and vital part of the unique kind we all belong to, which is called “humankind.”

Looking at us from another planet, with the eyes of an alien, one would say we are behaving like a deadly and unstoppable virus. We are destroying each other. We are destroying the home our children will be living in. This is the threat. To look within is to try to change individually, instead of wanting to change others. Breaking free from the addiction of wanting to dominate the other, resisting the compulsion of having, of appearing and perhaps trying to focus a little more on being. Abandoning classifications of gender, race and sexual orientation, because they do not define us, they actually limit us and create divisive barriers; we are what we are in perpetual change. Human nature is inherently unpredictable and immense. We are more than the classifying names we bestow to recognize ourselves. And the time has come when we must invent some new words if we want to communicate in the new world we are living in. Dostoyevsky wrote: “Taking a new step, saying a new word, is what people fear most.”

Back to the film. The story of a 12-year-old girl who does not 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 1970s.

There you go. It’s set in the ’70s. You need to remember those years. I recreated them as I lived them, as I remember them. A suburb under construction, a place that could be any place, upscale buildings bordering a camp of construction workers, families from southern Italy living at the edge of the construction site. Life inside, life outside. A traditional middle-class family, a marital crisis, a man cheating on his wife. Children absorbing the lack of love, each suffering their own lack of synchronicity with familial and social expectations. One child doesn’t eat; the other one eats too much. The protagonist, the eldest sibling Adriana, believes she is a creature from outer space. Maybe female, maybe male, maybe both, maybe different from all that is known and knowable. A new word, unutterable and unknown. She/he knows the path; it is others who lose the ability to focus, who cannot tolerate anything that proclaims itself undefinable, unclassifiable. As if being human was not enough. As if identifying with hetero male or female, gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender was much more important than recognizing oneself 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 don’t know. I thought of it all my life, I guess. Managing to shoot it was a breakthrough experience for me. At first, it was very painful, 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 preachy, not to give in to self-pity. To break from the narrative stereotypes in which characters like me die tragically. People want to see them defeated. They cannot survive happily. But the reality is something else. We can exist and we can express ourselves, we can even be happy, have a job and be recognized for what we do rather than what is or is not between our legs. I am very fond of my native country, of my culture, but I can’t deny that without the United States and France, I probably wouldn’t be a working film director. I had to emigrate to become what I am. I like to live and explore new territories.

One of the American reviews of the film said it wasn’t “well-intentioned,” because it doesn’t dwell on the experience of persecution and marginality. Instead, Adri, the main character, is a human being searching for her place in the world.

Because that’s what it is. A person’s life is an architecture, a complex organism. I wanted to portray the life, the pain and the 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 judgment. The suffering for the pain you cause in other people’s lives 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 what we are, what we look like and what we want.

How did you find Luana Giuliani, the preteen who embodies Adriana/Andrea?

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

You have a terrific relationship with the children on the 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 gaze of innocence. A gaze we all had. The courage. The fragility. Working with children is like working with great teachers of truth. I need them. 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 become children again. That sense of trust and playfulness.

In the film, Penelope Cruz plays a very lonely woman. A misunderstood, lost foreigner. It’s only in the fantasy sequences where she embodies [Italian singer and queer icon] Raffaella Carrà that she breaks free.

Penelope allowed herself to be led to places of unrestrained wildness, of deep truth, with a generosity, a humanity and a professionalism that are truly rare. I call her “the shaman.”

What about Vincenzo Amato, your actor and guide?

More than a guide, he is my cheerfully-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 at night in an Italian restaurant. At night we’d meet on the stairs, at the end of a long day. We would smoke and tease each other. Always in love with someone. Vincenzo is a luminous, radically authentic person. He’s an extraordinary artist.

What do you see in your future?

The future is a secret to be cultivated. The future — I’d like it to be a game I’ve never played.

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