Italian for Beginners

The Dogme 95 manifesto continues to attract filmmakers to its ranks, though the official list, currently numbering 25 films from eleven countries, is of wildly mixed quality–from the brilliant The Idiots to the banal Reunion. More Dogme films have been made in the U.S.A. than in Denmark, its country of origin, but the Danes seem to have understood better than the Americans that whatever the form, quality content is essential.

Italian for Beginners follows six characters in a provincial Danish town, all of them emotionally needy, all somewhat hesitant to take the initiative in romantic situations. They come together at a weekly Italian class which is more than a plot device; the class represents the potential of learning not only a language, but also, perhaps, the more readily available emotional connections of Mediterranean people as compared to the more inhibited, inwardly-directed style of the Danes.

Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen) is a young, recently ordained pastor who is on temporary assignment at the local church. Initially preaching to a congregation of two, plus the bitter and hostile retired minister, Andreas’ professional challenge is complicated by his own mourning over the suicide of his schizophrenic wife. At the hotel where he is staying, the restaurant is managed by Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund) who has a short temper, frequently inappropriately directed at customers of the restaurant.

Jorgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler) is a manager at the hotel and a friend of Finn’s. He’s self-effacing, insecure, and worried about impotence. The cook at the restaurant, Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen), is Italian and seems the most secure of the bunch, though she prays to the Virgin for Jorgen’s attentions, while passively waiting for him to take the initiative.

Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen) is a hairdresser whose abusive mother is terminally ill. Other characters visit her salon, including Finn; there, a spark of a connection begins. And Olympia (Anette Stovelbaek) is a simple and incredibly clumsy shop girl at the local bakery; she lives with her aged father, also abusive and bitter.

A series of deaths acts as the catalyst for change in the lives of these six characters. (The proximity of three demises may seem a bit forced, but the tone of the film is so gentle and winning that the premise is easily accepted.) Writer/director Lone Scherfig handles the intersecting stories well, with each character quickly becoming individualized, clarity of plot and continuity, and a clever eye for detail. Funeral mixups, pastry spills, and matching corporate ties all help leaven the tone, even when some of life’s heavier realities come into play.

Italian for Beginnersis officially Dogme film #12, and it manages to adhere to the Dogme spirit and rules without some of the distracting annoyances that often accompany these films. Hand-held cameras are required, for example, but Italian for Beginners doesn’t have the nervous, jumpy quality that usually results. (The rules require that music only be used when it occurs as part of the scene being shot; that rule appears to have been breached here.) But the peeled away production values (sometimes all there is in studio films) are eschewed in favor of emphasis on content. Italian for Beginners is a smaller scale feat of Altman-like filmic logistics, with Scherfig staying focused on character and the gentle humor growing out of character. The yearning they have to connect is manifest and it’s impossible not to be rooting for the success–or at least the start–of their relationships. Every one of the leads is likable, in no small part the result of subtle, unforced and sympathetic performances by all.

Arthur Lazere

Italian for Beginners

San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.