Italian For Beginners Movie Review
With the warm, evocative, sublimely human, sweetly melancholy romantic comedy "Italian for Beginners," the fascinating Danish-born minimalist moviemaking style called Dogme95 has graduated beyond its signature look of shaky-vérité handheld cameras, "found" settings and natural light.
While the Dogme movement has produced several fascinating films, its strict, nitty-gritty code the filmmakers work under -- no soundstages or stage lighting and no stationary cameras among other rules -- has felt conspicuous in many of the 25-odd films certified by the informal genre governing body, the Dogme Collective.
But in "Italian," writer-director Lone Scherfig has dropped the pretense and just made a movie. Her filmmaking is transparent, so nothing stands between the viewer and the picture's wonderful world of curiously interconnected characters.
Set during a quiet winter in a pocket of Copenhagen, the story interweaves the lives of several lonely 30-somethings who come to know each other through connections made in an Italian class.
Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen) is the new pastor at the neighborhood church who is standing in for a surly, suspended minister who makes it his business to harass his replacement. Facing his first Christmas alone after the suicide of his schizophrenic wife, Andreas is struggling with his faith when he's encouraged to join the language class and feels something click with a classmate. Her name is Olympia (Anette Stovelbaek) and she's a clumsy counter girl at the bakery who struggles terribly with a lack of faith in herself after a life of caring for her emotionally abusive invalid father.
Andreas lives at a local hotel managed by the romantically flummoxed Jorgen (Peter Gantzler), who is taking the Italian class hoping it will give him the confidence to flirt with Guila (Sara Indrio Jensen), a beautiful young Italian immigrant who cooks and waits tables at the hotel's sports cafe. Unbeknownst to Jorgen, the feeling is mutual -- so much so that Guila tries to make herself look older, hoping their age difference isn't what's keeping him from making a move.
Guila works with Halvfinn (Lars Kaalund), a bellicose soccer hooligan, bitter about the cards that he's been dealt in life, who often takes it out on cafe customers. Halvfinn begins to see himself the way others do after meeting Karen (Anne Eleonora Jorgensen), the pretty, pushing-40 proprietor of a modest barber shop down the street. As a step toward reforming his personality, and because he already speaks fluent Italian, he takes over the class when its original instructor dies -- and just as Karen joins the class because of an unrelated twist of fate involving her dying mother.
Coping with death and unlucky circumstance are recurring themes in "Italian For Beginners," which mixes this pensive sobriety with such charming romanticism (and lucky circumstance as well) that the concoction is at once deeply affecting, cogently vicarious and delightfully entertaining. Each and every character feels so real -- like dear friends in dire need of some good advice -- that as intimate connections are forged and emotional obstacles overcome, a heartfelt gladness transcends the screen.
A few nagging imperfections lurk in the corners of "Italian for Beginners," like the fact that we never see the nervous new pastor give a sermon and the fact that Guila's attraction to Jorgen -- a 40-ish hotel manager who has a problem with his sex drive -- is never adequately explained. Surely this beautiful, outgoing girl must have men knocking down her door. Yet no one but Jorgen -- not even cafe customers -- shows any interest in her.
But such shortcomings never interfere with the affection Scherfig builds for her enduring and endearing, remarkably well-drawn characters. This movie is a true gem.