Penélope Cruz has always had a maternal side. She’s known this for most of her life—since before she became a mother to her own two children, and even before she was one of the world’s most renowned actors.
“I’ve always a very strong maternal instinct—always,” Cruz tells Bazaar. “Since I was a little girl, since like five years old, I’ve been playing the role of a mother and saying that I for sure wanted to have kids when I was an adult. I always saw that in me. Pedro Almodóvar saw that in me—and most of the movies that I’ve done with him, I’ve been a mother or I was giving birth in a bus.” She laughs.
She’s not wrong. Whether it’s as Raimunda in 2006’s Volver or her Oscar-nominated turn as Janis in 2021’s Parallel Mothers (Almodóvar directed both films), the actress has been connected throughout her career with themes of parenthood and maternal instinct. In Emanuele Crialese’s L’immensità, released in select U.S. theaters this month, she portrays Clara, a woman crumbling under the pressure of a turbulent marriage while staying strong for her child, Andrew, who is coming to realize that he is trans.
“I don’t look for that on purpose, but I get a lot of interesting scripts that feature great roles of mothers. I do other things, but I feel such a big attraction to some of those roles,” Cruz continues. “But [L’immensità] was fascinating to me because in this film she is a true heroine.”
The film movingly depicts Crialese’s own upbringing as a trans child growing up in the ’70s. Cruz plays his mother, Clara. Like many moms of that time period—or any mom of any time period—she doesn’t have all the answers her child is looking for. What she does have is the understanding that he needs love and the space to wonder and dream, which she works to give him even while her own mental health is disintegrating, due to her relationship with her unfaithful, abusive husband.
“There is so much suppression and oppression happening in not letting her be herself and not letting her help her own kids to be themselves,” Cruz says. “It’s really heartbreaking how Emanuele tells that story—how he talks about domestic violence and people feeling trapped in their bodies and in their families and their environment. The only way out for Clara and Andrew is by dreaming—dreaming through the connection with that little television that they have, where they escape and imagine that they are these characters that they loved.”
Clara’s and Andrew’s dream sequences make up some of the most tender moments of the film. Both characters take turns—separately and together—re-creating iconic musical numbers originally performed by famous Italian singers Raffaella Carrà and Patty Pravo. (Longtime Cruz fans may get flashbacks to her role as Carla in Rob Marshall’s Nine.) The blaring jazz bands, the high-energy choreography, the glamorous costumes—they’re all symbols of the joy and freedom Andrew and Clara want to see in their own lives.
“I danced for 18 years in my life, so having the opportunity to bring that back here again was special. Playing these icons, like Raffaella Carrà and Patty Pravo—I grew up imitating Raffaella for my grandmothers and their friends. She was such an icon for us,” says Cruz. “Those musical numbers represent escape and survival. It’s like, ‘Let’s dream for two hours, otherwise we are gonna lose our minds in this house.’ My life was not like that growing up. I was a happy kid, but it’s true that I found something in common with that relationship with the TV. Through TV I discovered what I wanted to do in my life—I wanted to explore other realities.”
L’immensità, in a way, is meant to be a story about a specific era, demonstrating how little language mainstream society had to understand queerness just 50 years ago, and how entertainment could be a lifeline.
“[Back then] you had the paper and you had two channels—and that’s what you had. The fact that there was not so much to choose from also had its advantages,” says Cruz. “The speed of things now I don’t think is very healthy for any brain, especially for developing brains. It’s something that always worries me—the speed of things now compared with the speed of things before, and the number of distractions that are put in front of our faces. You used to have permission and time to get bored when you were a kid. And in this movie, you see that they’re still in that frequency and you can see there’s something very healthy about that.”
But while the film is a cinematic time capsule of sorts, its core themes still feel urgent. In 2023, when trans rights and queer culture are constantly under threat, L’immensità serves as a reminder of both how far we’ve come and how much farther we still have to go.
“There are so many people around the world in this situation where even inside their own family, they cannot say how they feel. They are afraid of being rejected and not being understood,” Cruz says. “[I signed on to do this film because] Emanuele is a very special man. He’s gone through so much in his life. He’s somebody who doesn’t judge other people. I love his way of telling stories from a place of a zero judgment. I felt a need to be a part of this adventure with him in telling this story.”
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