Although born in Australia, an Italian heart beats within filmmaker Ruth Borgobello. Her groundbreaking debut feature The Space Between is the first Italian-Australian collaboration since a treaty was established between the countries 20 years ago.
The film follows the journey of former chef Marco (Flavio Parenti), who has long stopped searching for his place in the world. Looking to numb the pain from a sudden loss in his life, he returns to his hometown in Northern Italy. He soon meets young Australian woman Olivia (Maeve Dermody) who slowly begins to spark life back into Marco. They find themselves drifting through the voids between death and rebirth to allow themselves to bridge reality and realise their dreams.
As the headline feature for the Italian Film Festival this September, I got the chance to chat with Borgobello to talk all things Italian-Australian and hopes for the future of women working in the film and television industry.
JK: You’ve invested a lot of time into producing Italian/Australian stories. Can you tell me what made you so interested in establishing these connections and why you wanted your debut feature to be the first Italian-Australia co-production?
RB: Sure, I’m half Italian, half Australian. I was born and raised in Australia, but I guess growing up and discovering Italian films – largely through the Italian Film Festival – I felt a strong connection to that sort of style of filmmaking. Travelling to Italy a lot, I was very inspired by the locations and this kind of energy and emotion that exists in Italy, which was harder to tune into in Australia – it’s a bit more hidden. I think also life in Italy – which doesn’t seem like it from Australia – is much harder. There’s more of a struggle inherent in stories that I’ve been attracted to.
JK: The co-production treaty between Italy and Australia has been signed for quite some time, why do you think it took so long for a feature film to be made between the two countries?
RB: I knew about the treaty, but I didn’t realise it hadn’t been used before. That was something I discovered, and when I first went to Italy to meet with producers to talk to them about doing it, I was quite naïve thinking, “Oh yeah, we’ve got this co-production and it will be fantastic”. They were interested in it, but also because it hadn’t been done, it was a bit of a psychological block. For Australian producers as well, I think there’s a suspiciousness that if it’s never been done before then maybe it doesn’t work or it’s too difficult and filmmaking is hard enough as is. Then we found a producer that was really willing to make it work and there was this growing interest and willingness from Italy and our people that supported the film in Australia. We had philanthropists and private investors that were connected to the Italian community and they really wanted to make it work because it hadn’t worked before, so I think this was the key. So for us it was really about building relationships and forging trust.
JK: You mentioned that life in Italy is harder than it looks. The film looks into the idea that despite being surrounded by immense historical and natural beauty, the characters have become blind to the potential within. Where did these ideas come from and what are you alluding it to in terms of dreams of the past for the Italian people?
RB: I guess like in the 60s, 70s and even 80s, there was so much promise in Italy. My grandparents left in the 50s after the war and it was a very depressed time. Now they actually say it’s worse than it was then. There were all these hopes and dreams created from our parent’s generation. They fought for their rights and created a great standard of living and amazing tourism. But then I think maybe when Europe came to be and the Euro came in, everything began to shift in Italy. I know from my husband who’s Italian and our mutual friends that all studied and are highly professional that they found themselves trapped in jobs where they were getting paid very minimal wages. At some point everything just stopped and when the Euro came in, prices doubled, but the wages stayed the same. I think they’ve just come to learn to live within these limitations and not fight for more, which was what their parents had done. It’s this strange thing in which maybe they’ve had it easy and then had it difficult and just clung to security instead of actually trying to push through and make things better.
JK: Wow, I didn’t even know that.
RB: Yeah, not many people in Australia do because we’re sort of sold this tourism. But the reality of life in Italy is very tough. There’s so many young Italians that have this dream to have the freedom and opportunity and most of them are shocked about how much they get paid here and how much they’re valued here as well.
JK: I love the quote before the film starts “Strange not to go on wishing one’s wishes. Strange to see all that was once in place, floating so loosely in space” How did you come across this and was it a source of inspiration for the film?
RB: Yes, that’s a really good question. The quote is from Rainer Maria Rilke poetry from the Duino Elegies. Every time I go to Italy, I visit this one place called Duino – which actually features in the film – and I always loved this place and felt like it was my favourite place in the whole world, even though it’s this tiny little town that nobody knows about. When I writing the script, I came across the poetry and realised there was a connection there. I’ve never known about the poet, but when I read it I just felt like it really captured what I wanted to say with the film. There was this kind of emotion and sense of loss in the poetry, trying to search for meaning within – that was what I wanted to say with the film.
JK: That’s amazing that you found it while you were writing the script. Seems almost like it was fate.
RB: Yeah I had a very strong reaction to it when I read it. There was something in it that really struck a chord with me. And obviously poetry is something that’s very hard to bring into film so we tried to do it in a subtle way.
JK: The film ends on a bittersweet note and I was curious to see if you thought of writing an epilogue on that happens to our main characters. Would you be interested in revisiting these characters in sequels?
RB: That’s so funny, I was just having this discussion with my editor. I was saying to him that when we finished shooting, I felt like I really wanted to start writing the next part. I really wanted to know what happened to them myself. I talked to the actors just after we shot that ending scene and asked them about what would happen and they both had different interpretations. I wanted to leave it open and I wanted to give it that sense of maybe they stay together, but everyone takes away a different interpretation. Flavio was very strong that they weren’t going to stay together, but Maeve was very strong that they were. My sense is that they would come back. Either way Flavio said he was desperate to do another one.
JK: Was this a personal film to make in terms of the context you’ve had growing up as a filmmaker in Australia and in terms of its subject matter of love and loss?
RB: Yeah, it was inspired by when I did meet my husband. We met in very similar circumstances in terms of him losing someone very important. We spent time together even though that had happened. And we had this strong connection that ended up developing into a relationship down the track. So it was sort of inspired by that, but then I made the characters very fictional.
JK: Being so involved with developing Italian-Australian relations, could you talk about some of your favourite Italian and Australian films that may have influenced you down this path?
RB: Federico Fellini is definitely one of my favourite directors. 8 ½ is my favourite all time film because I just feel like its perfection in cinema. In terms of Australian films, I recently watched and loved Looking for Grace that Katie our DOP shot. I think that’s one of the best Australian films I’ve seen in a while even though it’s kind of been under the radar.
JK: There aren’t many women working in the film and television industry in Australia, is there any reason why that number is low and do you sense we will be seeing more of a female presence in the future?
RB: Yes, it definitely will be. When I finished the film, my partner and I kept saying, “Yes you’re in the 16%”, but I never took notice of just how few women there are in the film industry. There’s very few in Italy. I think it’s well under the 16% in Australia, but I really don’t know why it is like that. I know with Palace Films, they’ve been extremely encouraging with this project because I am female. They really want to support women in film and their audience is mostly women, so it’s really important for them to have a strong female voice in more female films. So I think hearing things like that from a big distributor chain is a good sign definitely for the future.
The Italian Film Festival screens at Cinema Paradiso in Perth from September 22 to October 12
Image courtesy of Palace Films