The White Space

The White Space


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Maria (Margherita Buy) is a footloose, middle-aged divorcee in Naples who dances to her own rhythm when she is not teaching Italian to adult evening classes – but all that changes, seemingly in an instant, when an affair with single father Pietro (Guido Caprino) leads to an unplanned pregnancy and the birth of a fragile baby girl three months ahead of her due date.

The whirlwind speed with which these events take over Maria's life is conveyed by some extremely elliptical editing - with each cut skipping several months - so that the viewer is left, much like Maria herself, struggling to keep up with what has happened. Once, however, the baby is in an incubator in the hospital's special care unit, its life, like Maria's, in the balance, everything becomes a waiting game and the film's narrative pace slows accordingly to take in every detail of its protagonist's lonely sojourn in limbo.

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Not that she is actually alone. For although Maria at first spurns their company, all the other mothers on the ward are every bit as anxious, adrift and uncertain as she is. Her students, too, are either immigrants trapped between two cultures or locals whose education has been suspended since their childhood – and due to problems in the availability of permanent teaching premises, none of them knows from one day to the next where their next class might take place.

Even the heavily guarded magistrate (Maria Paiato) living in the apartment next door to Maria's has put her whole life on hold (and at risk) in the cause of justice. Everyone here, it seems, is living in abeyance, or at least in chrysalis – and even before the baby arrives, Maria's life already seemed stuck at a crossroads between free-wheeling independence and yearning for a stable lovelife, between a desire to stay young and the demands of her ageing biology.

All of which is to say that although The White Space may sound like a melodrama of maternity in moratorium, in fact Maria's premature baby, breathing artificially through a machine while all wait to see if she will be be healthy or handicapped, alive or dead, comes to reflect the indeterminacy and variability of existence, and the wonder of human adaptability.

Whether the 'white space' of the title refers to the clinical colourlessness of the neonatal ward where everything is precarious, or to the blank exam page that faces Maria's fifty-something student Gaetano (Salvatore Cantalupo) as he tries to lift himself out of decades-long illiteracy, or to the monochrome of the domestic spaces occupied by Maria and her neighbour, or to the stark images of sea and sky that occasionally punctuate the film, it is a phrase that comes to evoke the blank slate on which we can all, if we so choose, write whatever future we want.

As if the thematic richness and subtlety of The White Space were not enough, it is also directed by Francesca Comencini with style and sensitivity equally matched, and while Buy's performance as an assertive, confident woman who has lost her bearings is a masterclass in fine acting, her co-star, the city of Naples, in all its up-and-down hills, winding streets and rippling waters, proves just as expressive in conveying the meandering fluctuations of life.

Reviewed on: 31 Oct 2009
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A middle-aged woman copes with unexpected pregnancy and the premature birth of her child.
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Director: Francesca Comencini

Writer: Francesca Comencini, Federica Pontremoli, based on the novel by Valeria Parrella

Starring: Margherita Buy, Gaetano Bruno, Giovanni Ludeno, Antonia Truppo, Guido Caprino, Salvatore Cantalupo, Maria Paiato

Year: 2009

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: Italy


London 2009

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