Francesca Comencini’s The White Space is about a reluctant mother, one who feels incapable of taking care of herself and is burdened by the premature birth of her little girl, who is now barely surviving with the help of an incubator. Teaching Italian for paltry wages, Maria (Margherita Buy) is going through some hard times: Her classroom is in constant flux, as she loses students left and right, while having difficulty nailing down a permanent class space; plus, she is unable to clean up after herself, with ants commonly found crawling all over her stale leftovers. In a chance encounter at a club with the baby’s father, we find out what’s really wracking her brain. She had a fling about six months ago, and got pregnant. And as Maria suffers during this trying, anxiety-ridden time, she waits by her daughter’s side at the hospital—hoping good news will come while preparing for the worst.
Winner of last year’s Best Actress trophy at the Venice Film Festival, Buy gives an unshakeable, subtly devastating performance as Maria, singularly providing the film its beating yet sunken heart; in the worn creases on her face and wide-eyed stares, Buy achingly renders a character whose internal self is constantly being broken down and reinvigorated by life’s endless, cyclical hiccups and wonders. Also, the hard-edged, realistic philosophies of Maria’s character are abrasively refreshing, but the filmmaker oversimplifies the reality of the character and nature of her predicament via cringe-worthy and sappy stylistic decisions: The overbearing, manipulative score and song choices add a sentimental tinge to a film that tries so hard not to turn into Italy’s own variation on the Lifetime movie; and the somewhat surreal cutaway shots expressing Maria’s inner turmoil, like the moment when all the mothers in green hospital garb begin to dance in synchronized formation, run the risk of cloying overload.
The film’s most telling moment transpires the night before the breathing tubes are removed from Maria’s baby, when the woman candidly admits to a friend how she truly wants to raise the child. It is the scene where you finally see Maria break down uncontrollably, and as she wilts, the filmmaker’s most sincere intention comes through—which is to dissect a character struggling to reclaim the basic, primal elements of womanhood.
The White Space will play on June 6 and 10 as part of this year’s Open Roads: New Italian Cinema. For details about the festival, including ticketing information, click here.