Italian director Emanuele Crialese broke out with 2002 Cannes Critics Week winner “Respiro,” followed by “Nuovomondo” and “Terraferma,” which both scooped prizes in Venice. He’s back on the Lido with his ambitious, boldly personal drama “L’immensità.” Set in 1970s Rome, the film features Penélope Cruz as the mother of two children, one of whom is a 12-year-old named Adriana who wants to change her name and gender identity and convince everyone that she is male.

In his director’s note, Crialese calls “L’immensità” a memory-based film for which he needed the necessary time, distance and self-awareness to make. Though not strictly autobiographical, it is based on the director’s personal experience transitioning. As Crialese tells Variety, Adriana’s character is a representation of himself.

Like “Respiro,” “L’Immensità” is centered on the troubled rapport between a powerful female character and her family, especially her children.

“Respiro” was the first time I explored a female character in a film. Women are a mystery for me, so it’s a topic I like to explore because I don’t know exactly what I want. I find out as I go along. In both films, there is a woman who is misunderstood, and out of sync with the time and world she is living in when it comes to motherhood. But in “L’Immensità” this is more explicit, since it’s based on my memory of seeing a woman [my mother] in those years. She was full of desires to express herself, but was always restrained to her role as a mother and wife.

So the woman in “L’Immensità” is more imprisoned. And her [older] child’s gaze is basically my gaze. Adriana is asking questions. Adriana would like to free her, but [vicariously] lives the mother’s frustrations. It’s the gaze of a child who wants her mother to be more than a mother. A wish for her to find other roles. 

All three kids are going through this, of course. But Adriana, the oldest who is 12, is also going through a gender-identity crisis. She wants to convince everyone that she is a boy.

Kids express psychological conflicts through somatic symptoms as they go through the process of asking questions, which are actually just emotions, since they are not yet able to raise questions. And they transform themselves. [In the film] there is one child who doesn’t eat, one who eats too much, and there is one who, within a single body, wants to embody — and reconcile — the conflict between feminine and masculine. This is a recurring theme for me and has infinite possibilities of being explored. In this film I think I’ve reached the peak of this exploration. Now I think I’m even ready to move on. 

Let’s zero in a little more on Adriana.

The perception she has of herself is that she is a girl who is born biologically as a child who feels that she is a boy. It’s like there is this misperception around her [in the way she is perceived by others] and the mystery of it is: What is this misperception that she feels? Is it a mental problem? Is it something that will pass? A fleeting thing? The fact is that, more than the other two children, she embodies distress. A strong distress.

Yes, but how much is Adriana’s specific distress tied to the rapport with her mother, and how much is it due instead to something inside her that is not connected to that?

That is the big question that I think the film touches on. I think the film explores that question, without providing an answer.   

You say in your director’s notes that this is a film based on memory: Are you Adriana?

Of course I am. That’s my point of view. That’s me. It’s clear that it’s a representation of me. There is no doubt that that’s me. The gaze is the girl’s gaze, but the girl’s gaze absolutely corresponds with my gaze.

Penélope Cruz’s performance is a tour-de-force. She really shines. How did you direct her?

I have a method, so to speak, where with actors we do some rehearsals that aren’t really rehearsals. Just describing the characters. The actors add their understanding of the characters. Then we spend some time together, we get bored together, we talk, we play. We ask personal questions. And create an intimacy. 

What really stood out about Penélope is that in working with the kids, she reacted to what they brought. We saw this and encouraged this. We brought this to an extreme. Our game was: ‘forget the script!’ That’s what the performances spring from.

Raffaella Carrà, Italy’s late great singer, actor, dancer and TV host, features prominently in the film’s wonderful musical materials. There is this great scene where Penelope and Carrà overlap on screen. Is she a big Carrà fan?

Penélope is a huge Carrà fan. She initially wanted to be a dancer. She adores her. Something odd happened: The day we shot the “Rumore” ballet, which is at the start of the film (see clip). That morning, we were chatting with Penelope, and I said: “Why don’t we arrange for the two of you to meet? Let’s talk about it with Mario Gianani, the film’s producer.” We started shooting, then Mario arrived and we heard from him that she had died that night. So that day we danced and sang hearing Raffaella singing “Rumore” knowing that she had just left us. We all felt a very strong emotional charge.

Besides Penélope the other standout performance in the film is by newcomer Luana Giuliani who plays Adriana, your alter ego in a way. How did you find her? And how did you prepare her for this delicate role?

I was looking for a young girl who had wished for a time that she was a boy in order to reach a specific goal. Obviously at first I started looking within the category of girls who were going through Adriana’s same distress, but I immediately realized that was a mistake. It became clear after a few meetings that for any young girl whose life would be disrupted by being represented on screen on top of what she was going through [in terms of gender identity distress] that this was too much. So I searched in the world of male sports where females were also competing. We found Luana in the mini-motorcycle racing circuit where she was hellbent on beating male competitors [which she often did]. Her sexuality [as a female] is entirely resolved. At her first screen test, I said: ‘Pretend you are on a racing circuit where only males are allowed and you have to pretend that you are a male.’ I never gave her any psychology [of gender transition] indications for her performance. She simply had to pretend that she wanted to be a boy. Luana was amazing from day one. She’s very tough and very demanding. What I saw happening between Luana and Penélope is Luana asserting her strength with regards to Penélope. She wanted to be seen. Luana basically wants to exist. She wants to burst out. And she had this goddess next to her who was getting all the light. The two of them immediately established a very strong rapport at a physical level. They decided to share this light and generate even more of it.  

“L’Immensità” premieres at the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 4.