Six lonely, insecure single people sign up for a beginning Italian class that changes their lives in this small, endearing Danish movie that feels as much like a documentary as like a traditional romantic comedy.
That is because it was made under the auspices of a group of film-makers who have made a commitment to making movies as simply as possible.
The Dogme 95 film-makers have pledged to obey some severe restrictions as a part of their commitment to making movies with more freshness, intimacy, and authenticity than the big-studio productions that they believe interfere with story-telling. They film in real locations, their only props those that are already present. They use minimal additional lighting and do not re-record dialogue. There is no musical score. The best known Dogme 95 films are Lars van Trier’s “Breaking the Waves” and “Dancer in the Dark.” “Italian for Beginners” is the first Dogme 95 romance and the first directed by a woman. One of the Dogme 95 rules is that the movie must not have a director’s credit. But it was directed by its screenwriter, Lone Scherfig.
The movie begins as Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen), a young, newly ordained minister, is shown around the church he will be taking over temporarily. The current minister has been suspended (later we will find out why), and Andreas is a temporary fill-in. He moves into a hotel managed by Jorgen (Peter Gantzler), a shy man who has two big problems. He has not been able to have sex for four years, and he has been told to fire his best friend, Finn (Lars Kaalund), a handsome man who loves the sports restaurant he manages but cannot manage to be nice to any of the customers.
All three of them end up in the Italian class, along with a beautiful hairdresser and a clumsy bakery shop cashier. The two women, who are both caring for sick, demanding, parents, find out that they have even more in common. And Jorgen learns enough Italian to ask the pretty Italian cook who works with Finn if she would like to come to the class — even though she already speaks Italian. And then, like Shakespearean lovers running off to the woods, they leave Denmark to go to Venice, that most romantic of cities, to sort it all out.
This is the kind of cute concept that Hollywood studios churn out regularly (see Liza Minnelli’s “Stepping Out” for a pretty good example). But Schefberg has the courage to make the story messily un- formulaic. She trusts the audience enough to give us complicated characters coping with great loss and sadness. And here, in Dogme 95’s stripped-down style, the camera puts us so close to the action that we feel we are watching a real story unfold. There are moments of great intimacy, as when the hairdresser allows her hand to caress the side of Finn’s head as she washes his hair, and when Jorgen squats next to the swimming pool to ask advice about his problems with women as Andreas swims laps. And there are moments of great sweetness, as when the Italian cook steps away to consider a marriage proposal, to come racing back with her answer.
Parents should know that the movie is romantic and often comic, but characters cope with some very serious problems, including suicide, mercy killing, fetal alcohol syndrome, impotence, the death of parents, and the consequences of divorce for the adult children.
Scherfig said in an interview that there are no villains in her story, and that one difference between her story and most movies is that most movies made the audience want to be like the characters, while in her movie the characters want to be like the audience. Do you think that is true? What is the significance of Karen’s failed attempts to cut Finn’s hair, and his finally getting it done by someone else? What do we know about Andreas’s late wife that makes us think his new romance will work? Why does it take a trip to Venice to allow the characters to finally take a chance? What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of the Dogme 95 style? What kind of stories is it best for, and what kind would it do badly?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Brassed Off” and “The Full Monty.”