Back in the 90’s, Australia and Italy entered into a film production treaty designed to inspire and facilitate cinematic collaborations between the two countries. For nearly two decades it lay dormant, with no one able, or perhaps insane enough to tackle the layers of red tape that surely cocoon the deal. Around the same time, at 20, future director Ruth Borgobello left a marketing job in Melbourne, went to her father’s hometown in Northern Italy and met a young chef whose best friend died in a car wreck that same day. They spent two weeks together—and eventually married. It’s the kind of story people hear at dinner parties and make excitable suggestions—“You should write a book”, they might chime, “or make a movie”. Most sensible people attempt neither. Sometime later though, Borgobello, by then a VCA graduate, decided that a film partly inspired by her experiences was a great idea—and she managed to convince a healthy swag of investors and sponsors it was too. The resulting production took eight years to complete, and premieres as part of this year’s Lavazza Italian Film Festival. The mutant offspring of a gap-year visual diary and a screenwriter’s handbook, The Space Between is stunning in both its delicious cinematography and its ceaseless commitment to subpar scripting.
At a garden party on the grounds of a villa—fairy lights glitter, wine flows into dewy glasses, and handsome, shaggy, salt-of-the-earth Italiani prepare high-end cuisine for an artsy international crowd. Shots linger over salted whole fish and fresh herbs, crisp linen and candlelight. Sumptuous, high-key and shot with a lustful, longing gaze; devouring the romance of twinkling al fresco dining on a balmy regional evening—this is commercial-grade exotica, and a perfectly gorgeous backdrop for a strong screenplay and some solid performances … if you happen to have them handy.Here, in the chic and sleepy town of Udine in Northern Italy, Marco (Flavio Parenti), a scruffy, cherubic thirty-something, is going through the motions, cigarette in his hand and a chip on his shoulder. His international culinary career is on hiatus while he mourns his mother’s passing and keeps an eye on his aging father (Giancarlo Previati), his hours at the factory are being cut, and his best friend (Alberto Torquati) is happily engaged and getting impatient with Marco’s funk. As Marco mills over his advice to take a chance on a job offer from Australia, the friend dies tragically in a road accident. Marco briefly inherits a pregnant cat, a bookstore and a grieving widow. All of which would make for an intriguing back-story, except that it takes up half of the film; a waste of time that’s only tolerable due to the beautiful town and its beautiful inhabitants.
It’s at this point, where the film should have probably begun, that Marco, grief-stricken and conflicted, encounters the ‘spirited’ Olivia (Maeve Dermody). We know she’s quirky and cool because she steals hard rubbish, has no glassware in her apartment and catches a bus in the wrong direction for fun. Molto zany. Olivia is an Australian of Italian descent living in Udine for a complicated array of reasons. She jots furniture design ideas in Moleskins, wears Gorman (exclusively), digs retro stuff and looks almost constantly confused by whatever the hell is going on with Marco—and who can blame her. During their brief courtship he abruptly pulls the pin on a cosy nightcap with no explanation, goes berserk over her interest in a particular pile of hard rubbish and then randomly abandons her at a party to commandeer the kitchen and spontaneously rework catering the menu. This character is a hot mess, tumbling through a chaotic assortment of ill-conceived and over-designed excursions and exchanges that clutter the script to the point of no return.
As Marco’s personal journey jumps haphazardly from one plot point to the next, and Olivia adds her own contrived situation to the mix, it becomes obvious that Borgobello is fighting a losing battle with the weak and untidy script and failing to push her actors anywhere close to their highest capabilities. The lonely exception, and the most authentic relationship by far, is that between Marco and his widowed father, who whiles away his twilight alone in a time-capsule apartment, drinking birrette and watching soccer; not taking himself, or life, so seriously. Here, Borgobello has nicely captured something more natural. Between the father and son there is a real sense of duty and affection, and their banter and mutual frustrations provide some merciful respite from the sophomore scripting that plagues the film.
And it is a real shame. This film has all the ingredients of a slightly naff but potentially enjoyable euro-romp—a transnational love story of cultures colliding and lives at crossroads. There’s plenty there to work with, but it just never comes to life. The hotchpotch of events, irrelevant details and awkward exposition saturate the story, leaving the plot aimless and the theme indefinable. While the story and dialogue are difficult to contend with, the film’s major redeeming quality is the sexy and sublime cinematography (Katie Milwright) that significantly distracts from the film’s narrative deficiencies. Visually and stylistically The Space Between is easy, pretty watching that does a charming job of what appears to be the film’s design brief (not that it should have one), showcasing ‘la dolce vita’, the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region and a few key brands with seductive shots and eye candy galore.
Cinematic odes to a place or way of life can be a beautiful thing, but they should always be much more than an advertisement for a lifestyle, or a fetishization of culture. Unfortunately, in The Space Between, style trumps substance in virtually every scene. It certainly whets the appetite and stirs some cravings, but ultimately offers very little to chew on.