Well before it landed on our shores, the Danish romantic comedy Italian for Beginners had carried off all manner of European prizes, including an international critics’ award for “advancing the Dogme movement.” I wouldn’t know about that, but the film’s director, Lone Scherfig — significantly, the first woman to direct a Dogme film — has certainly lightened it up, which will do very nicely.
Craftily positioned by Miramax to arrive in theaters when the rush of holiday heartwarmers is over, but still close enough to yuletide to tap into our lingering hopes of plugging the holes in our lives with love and reconciliation, Italian for Beginners — a tale of six hopelessly single, haplessly lost and helplessly grieving souls who find liberation in a night class — is an improbable fusion of two radically different filmmaking sensibilities. Early on in the movie, there’s a classic Dogme moment, when a sick and irascible old man bludgeons his grown if thoroughly cowed daughter with the information that without his care and feeding she’d still be in wet diapers on the carpet. Instead of registering a standard reaction shot from the daughter, the camera travels slowly down and across the unoffending rug. Italian for Beginners has all the trappings of determined Dogme spontaneity: The rough look of life, the action unfolding in a cramped and claustrophobic space, improvised dialogue and hand-held camera work that will plunge your stomach somewhere into the vicinity of your ankles.
Yet the movie is also the slickly entertaining work of a highly skilled television writer who knows how to bring together an ensemble of losers united by their misery, run a few romantic currents through them and knit the group together into a de facto family. Much of the cast is recruited from a popular Sunday soap directed by Scherfig and headed by Anders Berthelson, who played the lead in another Dogme film, Mifune. Here, slyly cast against rakish type, Berthelson plays the movie’s central character, Andreas, a gentle, recently bereaved young priest newly arrived in Copenhagen.
As if it weren’t enough that he has to deliver sermons in a ruffed collar that makes him look like a cross between Elizabeth I and a border collie, Andreas also has to deal with an embittered predecessor bent on stirring things up for his replacement. Pressed into taking Italian lessons as a way of meeting people, Andreas soon finds himself in the unnerving company of five other walking wounded: Jorgen Mortenson (Peter Gantzler), a modest, inept hotel employee with a variety of intimacy disorders that keep him from pursuing his desperate crush on a lovely young Italian waitress, Julia (Sara Indrio Jensen); Jorgen’s pugnacious friend Halvfinn (played by Lars Kaalund, looking like an enraged Kurt Russell), who can’t stay away from the salon of a sensual hairdresser, Karen (Ann Eleonora Jørgenson); and Olympia (Anette Stovelbaek), a downtrodden young bakery worker whose clumsiness brings out the white knight in the priest.
Anyone who has been watching prime-time television since the 1970s, when domestic comedy gave way to workplace shows like The Bob Newhart Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, will know that this sorry crew is destined not only to fall for each other, but to form an oddball family unit that will warmly compensate for their uniformly empty home lives. Like most currently successful writers of situation comedy, Scherfig has grasped that this is the way we live now, or would like to, when the traditional family is perceived to have tanked and we look to the workplace for intimacies previously associated with home. This may be a bigger pipe dream yet, but an enormously alluring one to those who have no family life or, like Karen and Olympia, have parents who appear to have swanned in from another planet. With its ludicrous parallels and brisk, funny script (pardon my provincialism, but it sounds all the funnier in Danish), Italian for Beginners is full of larky charm while drawing its emotional vitality from urban loneliness.
The finale, alas, is pure slop that will nonetheless guarantee that the movie, which I’ll wager was purchased for a song, will be the first film from this group since Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (not technically a Dogme film, but in every way the prototype) to make serious art-house money. As one who was ready to hurl sharp objects at Emily Watson’s haloed head by the end of that overrated mash note to sainthood, I’m grateful for Lone Scherfig’s goofball levity. Still, I worry about a Dogme movie that has on offer precisely the two forms of satisfaction that this movement, which has fingered Hollywood as the Antichrist, has forsworn till the end of time: comfort and joy.
ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS Written and directed by LONE SCHERFIG | Produced by IB
TARDINI | Released by Miramax Films | At Laemmle’s Royal