The co-production treaty between Australia and Italy entered into force 20 years ago. However, somewhat remarkably, writer-director Ruth Borgobello’s debut feature The Space Between – which had its world premiere at the Lavazza Italian Film Festival last week – is the first official film to result from it.
The Space Between is a cross-cultural romance set in Friuli Venezia Giulia, a region in north-east Italy. It charts the story of Marco, played by Italian actor Flavio Parenti (To Rome with Love, I am Love), a former chef who has been drawn back to his hometown of Udine to look after his father and is stuck working a dispiriting factory job.
Marco’s life is shaken early in the film by the death of someone close to him. The tragedy coincides with his meeting the intriguing Australian visitor Olivia (Maeve Dermody, Beautiful Kate, Pawno), whose life is also at a crossroads.
It’s a story that has roots in real life; The Space Between’s events are loosely based on Borgobello’s own experience meeting her future husband, Davide Giusto (also the producer of the film), on her first visit to her Italian father’s home town.
A friend of her dad’s cousin, Giusto had offered to show Borgobello around. However, when she arrived, he also had someone close to him pass away.
“We still spent a couple of weeks together in spite of that happening. It always stayed with me, this moment that created this strong connection between us, and the transformation for him and for me that came out of that,” Borgobello told IF.
The Space Between is also a commentary on the impact of the financial crisis in Italy, with Borgobello wanting to talk about “how difficult it is for people in their 20s, 30s or 40s to really dream out loud and not feel disillusioned with their lives.”
“There’s a very negative mentality that’s really set in. I feel like the moment that happens to the characters is a bit of a metaphor for Italy at the moment; getting stuck in that space between,” she said.
Borgobello graduated from VCA in 2002. As well as directing commercials, she has made well-received shorts such as Claudia’s Shadow and The Gift which have screened at festivals such as Tribeca Film Festival, Flickerfest and Interfilm Berlin.
Borgobello’s first feature is the result of eight years of hard work and persistence. Originally she intended The Space Between to be shot and set in Australia, with the idea to involve Italian actors. However, after spending time in Italy researching and developing the screenplay, “Italy crept in” and she decided to shoot around Friuli Venezia Giulia.
“The story just felt like it needed to be in that place; that’s the place where I met Davide, and a place that’s very close to my heart,” she said.
As such, Borgobello thought a co-production would be a good option for the film.
“I’ve always felt like I’d love to create a bridge between the two [countries]. And I’ve always been very inspired by Italian cinema,” she said.
Borgobello said finding creatives and producers in Italy “happened quite naturally”, and that the local film commission was supportive.
“Then, basically, we tried to find a way to make it work with Australia,” she says.
The Space Between has a part-Australian cast and crew, including DOP Katie Milwright (Looking for Grace), and all post-production was completed in Melbourne.
However, there was a lot of back and forth between the two countries on a government and production level in order to make the film happen. Borgobello found the financing arrangements, budgets and processes quite different.
“That is maybe why it hasn’t happened before; it’s not a natural synergy,” she said.
“It’s a lot cheaper in Italy to shoot, and there’s a lot of support for first time filmmakers. So there’s a different approach there where you’re given a lot more creative freedom as well. As a first time director, they let you have a go, make mistakes and build a career. Whereas in Australia I think it’s more difficult at that level.”
The Space Between’s Italian production company is Ideacinema, headed by leading producer Claudio Saraceni, who has produced over 60 Italian films, including films by Fellini and Tornatore. Mondo Studio Films, led by Giusto, handled the Australia side – the company's first project.
Funding for the film came from the Italian Ministero dei Beni e delle Attivita’ Culturali, The Friuli Venezia Giulia Film Commission, the FVG Audiovisivo Film Fund and private investors in Australia.
Now she’s cleared the path, Borgobello thinks it should be easier for other filmmakers in the future to realise Italian-Australian co-productions.
“I think it breaks that psychological barrier that [existed because] it hasn’t been done before. We found a bit of resistance in the beginning, even from producers: because it hadn’t been done, it was too difficult. A lot of people said, ‘No, it’s impossible. It won’t work. But of course, the treaty has been created to serve a purpose, and it is very possible to make it work.”
Borgobello’s advice to other Aussie filmmakers going over to Italy?
“You can’t go there with a contract and expect things to happen quickly. You’ve got to be patient and invest in building relationships,” she said.
The film was shot through May and June last year, with post-production completed in January.
“I was quite intimidated by the thought if shooting for six weeks in the beginning,” Borgobello said, “But what surprised me is the adrenaline that kicks in.”
“I think the first day of the shoot was the highlight, because it had taken so many years to get to the point of having it financed. It was an amazing feeling just to be able to call action for the first time."
As for what's next, Borgobello told IF that she was keen to do another Italian co-production and had two projects currently in development: one a futuristic drama about climate change, the other exploring the European refugee crisis.
The Space Between is currently screening across Australia as part of the Lavazza Italian Film Festival.