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In 'L'Immensita,' a vibrant Penelope Cruz plays the mom of a trans boy in 1970s Italy

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

An Italian word, l'immensita - it means immensity, which may seem an odd title for a small family drama. But our movie critic Bob Mondello says immensity captures what its youthful protagonist feels - the weight of the world on adolescent shoulders.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: 1970s Rome. Twelve-year-old Adri is ending adolescence in a household filled with instability. His philandering father has gotten a co-worker pregnant. His mom, Clara, is forever either covering up her tears with makeup or deflecting - putting a record on the turntable, say, and enlisting her three kids...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "L'IMMENSITA")

PENELOPE CRUZ: (As Clara, speaking Italian).

MONDELLO: ...To turn dinner prep into a glorious tablecloth-unfurling production number.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUMORE")

RAFFAELLA CARRA: (Singing in Italian).

MONDELLO: It's feast or famine in this home emotionally. Small wonder Adri is first spotted stringing wires from a rooftop TV antenna, hoping to get signals from outer space. "Did they answer," wonders his little sister.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "L'IMMENSITA")

MARIA CHIARA GORETTI: (As Diana, speaking Italian).

MONDELLO: Oh, if only. Adri doesn't really know where else to turn for support. He's a transgender boy, though his family won't acknowledge that. When he calls himself Andrew, Dad counters with Adriana.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "L'IMMENSITA")

VINCENZO AMATO: (As Felice, speaking Italian).

MONDELLO: Meanwhile, Mom, played by a vibrant Penelope Cruz as if she's channeling Sophia Loren, tries to understand as best she can. Gender dysphoria was not something anyone said in 1970.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "L'IMMENSITA")

LUANA GIULIANI: (As Adri, speaking Italian).

MONDELLO: "You and Dad made me wrong," Adri tells Clara as they wander Rome. "I come from another galaxy."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "L'IMMENSITA")

GIULIANI: (As Adri, speaking Italian).

MONDELLO: "And you don't have the power to fix me."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "L'IMMENSITA")

GIULIANI: (As Adri, speaking Italian).

MONDELLO: Clara's response is to bond with her child. On the walk home, they play a game where they run screaming with laughter through a crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "L'IMMENSITA")

CRUZ: (As Clara, screaming).

GIULIANI: (As Adri, screaming).

MONDELLO: And for the moment, they're both OK. In this warm, evocative memory of adolescence, the world around Adri and Clara is also in flux, buildings springing up in Rome's suburbs like reeds in a marsh. A construction site the kids sneak off to visit has a girl named Sara who accepts Adri as Andrew and thinks he's cute enough to share a first kiss amid the concrete pipes and cables. But the construction job is almost done, as are Mom's marital coping mechanisms.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "L'IMMENSITA")

AMATO: (As Felice, speaking Italian).

MONDELLO: Her husband's a jerk, and sneaking under the table to steal shoes with the kids at family gatherings can maybe get her out of talking about it with the other moms and dads once.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "L'IMMENSITA")

CRUZ: (As Clara, speaking Italian).

GIULIANI: (As Adri, speaking Italian).

MONDELLO: So when "L'Immensita" premiered to cheers a few months ago at the Venice Film Festival, its longtime writer-director Emanuele Crialise is revealed for the first time publicly that he's a trans man and that while the film is not autobiography, the character of Adri was inspired by his own experience. Played smartly by newcomer Luana Giuliani, who does not identify as trans in real life, Adri is a forceful, affirmative figure. And perhaps more to the point, Giuliani can hold the screen with Penelope Cruz as the director surrounds them with arresting images - kids flinging vestments out a church school window...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "L'IMMENSITA")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, speaking Italian).

MONDELLO: ...A red napkin blindfold game at Christmastime, black-and-white musical fantasies. No question the filmmaker's personal story adds impact, but with gorgeous cinematography and Cruz as its resident goddess, "L'Immensita" had plenty going for it already. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE STORY")

PATTY PRAVO: (Singing in Italian). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.