Italian For Beginners
Back in 1995 two Danish filmmakers - Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg - got together and posted a list of rules they called Dogma 95, that would make movies 'purer' than ever: use only hand-held cameras, don't use created lighting, no film music, no retakes, no costumes, and not even a director's credit - well, you get the point. And out of their Dogma 95 rules have come some interesting films, like Vinterberg's "Celebration," Von Trier's "Breaking The Waves," and Soren Kragh-Jacobsen's "Mifune." (You ask how we know who made them if there are no directors' credits? Ego tops Dogma every time.)
Now comes the first true Dogma 95 comedy, and also the first by a woman: Lone Scherfig, who has written and directed the very delicious and yet moving "Italian For Beginners." She gives us six interesting and well-defined characters, beginning with a new pastor, Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen), on temporary assignment to a Copenhagen church whose regular pastor has been suspended for throwing the organist off the balcony.
Coping with the recent death of his own wife and needing some outside life he signs up for a class in Italian for beginners, where his fellow students include Olympia (Anette Stovelbæk), a mousy bakery worker who's so clumsy she's been fired from 43 jobs since leaving school; Jørgen (Peter Gantzler), the shy manager of Andreas's hotel; Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund), Jørgen's best friend and the hotel restaurant manager, a man so abrasive he insists on insulting all his customers; and the hairdresser Karen (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen), who in a kind of running gag never quite gets to do Hal-Finn's hair. The sixth member of this roundelay is the restaurant's waitress Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen), a real Italian who needs no classes.
Scherfig gives everyone a life and a persona of their own, including some dark moments for Olympia with her father and Karen with her mother that will only be resolved at the end of the film. The class moves in fits and starts - good progress in oral recitations, and then the loss of the teacher, with the obnoxious Hal-Finn having to take over - and each member dealing with other obstacles as well. Jørgen has been impotent for four years, and is afraid to begin any new relationship. Hal-Finn is to be fired from his job. Everyone has a crush on someone else, but is afraid to express it. The class decides to go as a group to Venice, where they can immerse themselves in Italian. The trip is a great delight for us as well as them, and the Italian sun and the beauty of the city combine to warm everyone's heart and other body parts. Everyone finds their right partner, and even learns some Italian as well.
Scherfig keeps the film moving fast, jump-cutting from scene to scene - here the Dogma style is a great help because it doesn't require the kind of connective tissue that conventional filmmaking needs - and the tone stays light and witty. Scherfig has gotten interesting yet unpretentious performances from her cast, and directed them with verve and honesty. She lets us know that something good will happen for everyone in the film, and so we can sit back to watch it all unfold.