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It took nearly 20 years from the signing of Italy’s co-production treaty with Australia to yield a feature. But after a lengthy and sometimes fraught process, writer-director Ruth Borgobello’s 2016 drama, The Space Between became the first official film produced between the two nations. Now Borgobello’s semi-autobiographical debut is representing Australia in the Oscar Academy best foreign language-film category.
Filmed in Udine in northern Italy, the gentle love story centers on 35-year-old former chef-turned-factory worker Marco (Flavio Parenti), and Australian traveler Olivia (Maeve Dermody), who meet on the day of a life-changing tragedy for Marco. Set against the backdrop of Italy’s tough economic conditions, The Space Between “talks about what it’s like to be in Italy in your 30s at the moment, and struggling to dream out loud or make a change in your life,” Borgobello explains.
With Borgobello’s Italo-Australian heritage, the story was inspired by meeting her husband, David Giusto, in Italy. The day they met, a close friend of his had died and that loss cast a shadow over the beginning of their relationship. “It made both of us look very differently on life,” she says.
The film’s development was an extended story of cross-border negotiations and financing, and creative collaboration, underscored by the substantial challenges involved in making a film in two languages and 16,000 kilometers apart.
“It was exciting to bring the two worlds of Italy and Australia together as it was a first for both countries. Italian co-productions work well with France and Germany, for example, as they are closer in proximity, whereas Australians typically work more with other English-speaking territories,” Borgobello says.
The challenges came in part from each nation’s approach to filmmaking. Australia, Borgobello says, is more bureaucratic and rule-bound, whereas the Italians are flexible and more about the intention to make the film work.
That didn’t mean things in Italy were easier. Financing structures meant at one point that the film was reliant on getting a grant through an Italian first-time director’s fund. But as that grant was set to be approved, the Italian government collapsed and it was another year before that funding came through. “We had to work hard during that time to keep the project alive,” Borgobello says.
Writing the film was also a masterclass in cross-cultural teamwork, with Borgobello in Australia and Mario Mucciarelli in Italy co-writing.
“I wrote in English and Mario wrote in Italian, which I speak and understand, so it was about the nuances of writing in our own language and adapting from there,” says Borgobello. “The dialogue however was always written in the mother tongue.”
Dealing with a more sensitive male character and his internal struggles, it took a while for Italian audiences, and more particularly Italian men, to react to the film.
“It wasn’t an immediate reaction in Italy,” she recalls. “But a few days after the premiere I was getting reflective messages from Italian men saying how the film had affected them. It was very emotional to see that reaction. Audiences in Australia responded more immediately and it’s a testament to Flavio Parenti and how he steered away from Italian male stereotypes that helped the film get a great emotional response in both territories.”
Now that there is a template in place and an understanding of the mechanisms to use for an Italo-Australian co-production, Borgobello is already researching and developing her second feature that will examine the fallout of the refugee crisis engulfing Europe. She is hoping that her experiences making The Space Between and the rich cultural relationship between the two countries can foster more films between them.
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