'The Space Between': Film Review

Stuck in first gear.

A tentative romance forms between an Aussie tourist and an Italian chef in this first official co-production between Australia and Italy.

Australia's submission for best foreign-language film at next year's Oscars, The Space Between is a leisurely paced romance about an Italian man who meets a young Australian woman holidaying in his hometown. Both are stuck in jobs they don't like — he in a factory, she in a bank back home — but the pair encourage one another to dream bigger. 

Australian helmer Ruth Borgobello's debut feature is heavily autobiographical, riffing on the filmmaker's own story of meeting her husband Davide Giusto — a producer here — and marks the first official co-production between Italy and Australia. Handsomely lensed by rising DP Katie Milwright (Looking for Grace) in northern Italy and starring Flavio Parenti (Tilda Swinton's son in I Am Love) and Maeve Dermody (Beautiful Kate), this rather earnest, Rilke-quoting drama boasts lovely locations but is unhurried to a fault, capturing the lead character's ennui a little too punctiliously. 

The film begins with an elliptical soft-focus sequence of Marco (Parenti) wandering through woods to the edge of a lake, gazing across the water to the sounds of wind chimes and shimmery strings from composer Teho Teardo (Il Divo). Dermody looks back at him from the other side, then disappears.

Then it's back to the real world, where the space between dreams and reality for the thirtysomething Marco, who was a hot-shot New York chef when his mother became ill and he returned home to Udine, is vast. He sleepwalks through shifts at the plant where his father used to work, seemingly with nothing to do but sit at a desk. And he occasionally cooks for dinner parties, encouraged by best friend Claudio (the appealing Lino Guanciale). But he bats away any suggestion of returning to a professional kitchen, even at the invitation of ritzy Australian restaurant Di Stasio. He's content — or so he says — to stay and look after his elderly, monosyllabic father, who seems altogether more interested in watching television than in quality time with his boy. 

Marco's funk only deepens when Claudio is killed in a car accident. He can't bring himself to attend the funeral, but begins managing his friend's cherished bookshop, where he meets Olivia (Dermody). Later he sees the young Australian dragging furniture across the square below his apartment, and intervenes when a policeman pulls over to ask her what she's doing. The two go for a drink, and later for a drive to visit Olivia's Italian grandmother, who is charmed by her granddaughter's scruffily handsome companion. 

Olivia is unaware of Marco's background as a chef until the two attend a garden party, catered for by one of his old cooking-school pals. Incensed by the standard of canapes being handed out to tourists, he ties on an apron, shouting orders with a zeal worthy of Gordon Ramsay, and Parenti shows a flicker of life here that's hitherto been thoroughly tamped-down. His spark leads to a romantic as well as professional awakening, with the lovers getting together while also contemplating a future spent working on opposite sides of the world, after Olivia chucks in her marketing job to pursue an interest in design. 

With a severe brown wig and fringe, Dermody is hardly recognizable here, and it's interesting that while this is Borgobello's story, it highlights the male standpoint. Perhaps this is because Marco can stand in for a generation of his countrymen, struggling to find meaningful work in straitened modern Italy. Borgobello and co-screenwriter Mario Mucciarelli's fixation on vehicles — buses going in the wrong direction, trains only stopping once, cars colliding — foregrounds the sense of people on a path they're convinced they can't control.

The confidence to think otherwise is unlocked by two people seeing the potential in each other, and Milwright's unobtrusive natural-light photography elegantly bridges the film's title, flitting between wide shots of Italian skylines and smokestacks and occasionally seguing into the blurry-edged dream sequences that litter the pic, nudging Marco toward self-forgiveness and a second lease of life.

Production companies: Ideacinema, Mondo Studio Films
Cast: Flavio Parenti, Maeve Dermody, Lino Guanciale, Fulvio Falzarano, Giancarlo Previati, Marco Leonardi, Patrica Mason, Alberto Torquati, Antonietta Bello, Elettra Dallimore Mallaby
Director: Ruth Borgobello
Screenwriters: Ruth Borgobello, Mario Mucciarelli
Producers: Davide Giusto, Claudio Saraceni, Michele Milossi
Executive producers: Maurizio Borgobello, James Dean, Jenny Lalor, Patricia Mason, Paul Walker, Stephen Whately, Benjamin Zeccola, Federico Saraceni, Jacopo Saraceni
Director of photography: Katie Milwright
Production designer: Marc'Antonio Brandolini
Art direction: Scilla Mantovani
Costume designer: Cristiana Ricceri
Editor: Paul Maxwell
Composer: Teho Teardo
Casting director: Lilia Trapani

In Italian and English
100 minutes