Italian For Beginners

Movie Information

Genre: Comedy Drama
Director: Lone Scherfig (uncredited)
Starring: Anders W. Berthelsden, Anette Stovelbaek, Peter Gantzler, Ann Eleanora Jorgensen
Rated: R

Reviewed Mar 22, 2006

Having had several years to accustom myself to the idea of the “Dogme” school of filmmaking, I have concluded that it strikes me as one of the dumbest ideas ever to come down the pike. I suppose that I ought to use a fancier word than “dumb,” but that just seems to resonate with the dictates of Dogme, which demands location shooting without props or sets, hand-held camera-work, natural lighting, no optical effects or filters, no superfluous action and no genre movies. Plus, the movie must be shot in the “Academy ratio” (no wide-screen) and the director remains uncredited. It sounds like a film-school exercise that got out of hand.

My first experience with Dogme was this film (properly called Dogme no 12), which, against all odds, turned out to be a small delight. A comedy-drama (keep that to yourself, since a genre is forbidden) written and directed by Lone Scherfig (shhh, we’re not supposed to know she made it), Italian for Beginners is essentially a romance involving six lonely people in Denmark who find themselves — and each other — while taking an adult-education course in Italian that climaxes with a trip to Venice.

Filled with quirky characters and blessed with an equally skewed point of view, the film finally overcomes its self-imposed limitations (and occasionally cheats on them) to become a charming work, with a center as soft as any Hollywood romantic comedy. Rated R for language and some sexuality.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

Original Review: Nov 19, 2004

This is actually called Dogme no. 12 — Italian for Beginners and I am committing a faux pas by giving it the genre classification of “comedy/drama.” Indeed, the Dogme films prohibit any kind of genre classification at all. The basic rules of Dogme 95 (a.k.a. their “Vow of Chastity”) demand location shooting without props or sets, hand-held camerawork, natural lighting, no optical effects or filters, no superfluous action and no genre movies. The film must be shot in the “Academy ratio” (no wide-screen process) and the director must not be credited. This peculiarly Scandinavian approach to film seems only reasonable for the part of the world that gave us Ingmar Bergman, taking Lutheran angst to the next plateau. It smacks of inverse snobbery and seems on a par with making a movie while wearing handcuffs. In the case of Lone Scherfig’s Italian for Beginners, though, the approach actually works — or at least the resulting film does. Whether it works because of the Vow of Chastity or in spite of it is another question. Shot on video, the film is anything but the dour experience one might expect. Scherfig may have limited herself to some pretty strong — and possibly silly — restrictions in terms of technique, but the film that emerges is almost invariably a thing of grace, wit and no little charm. It’s a quirky movie about six quirky people who manage to turn into three couples by the film’s end. Telling that doesn’t really give anything away, since the movie is basically plotless — which isn’t to say that it’s without either drama, or incident. It merely hasn’t any formal story to tell beyond the interaction of the characters and their adult-education Italian class. What makes this work lies in the richness of the incidents and the strength and likability of the characters. Scherfig has a true gift for characters. Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen) is a young pastor who comes to a provincial Danish town as a temporary replacement for Reverend Wredmann (Bent Mejding), a man who has so lost his own faith that he has virtually emptied the church (he delights in telling the faithful that God is merely an abstraction). Since Wredmann hasn’t been officially removed, Andreas has to be put up at the local hotel, where he meets Jorgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler), who suggests the young man might be interested in attending the local Italian class. Mortensen has his own problems: He appears to be impotent, thinks he’s a failure at his job, and has been told he has to fire his best friend and night-school classmate, Halvfin (Lars Kaalund). It’s not surprising that the hotel wants Halvfin fired, since the man treats his customers somewhat worse than Wredmann treats his flock. Working with Halvfin is an Italian immigrant, Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen), who understands more Danish than anyone knows and is secretly in love with Mortensen. In the course of events, Andreas meets Olympia (the luminous Anette Stovelbaek, who looks like a cross between Catherine Deneuve and British actress Georgina Hale), a terminally klutzy clerk in a bakery, who also becomes part of the Italian class, despite the objections of a domineering and insensitive father (Jesper Christensen). Through a series of ever-increasing complications — and delightfully crafted surprises of connectedness between the characters — the class is joined by Karen (Ann Eleanora Jorgensen), a hairdresser who is in love with Halvfin. The characters and their situations form what passes for the plot, and it’s a testament to Scherfig’s creativity that this is quite enough to keep the film constantly amusing, engaging and surprising. Don’t be put off by the idea of the Dogme restrictions. Italian for Beginners more than transcends any possible limitations those might impose and is alive with the joy of humanity.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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