Italiensk for begyndere
starring Anders W. Berthelsen, Anette Støvelbæk, Peter Gantzler, Ann Eleonora Jørgensen
written and directed by Lone Scherfig
by Walter Chaw Dogme 95 is a naïve and self-gratifying cinematic movement founded by Danish filmmakers Thomas Vinterberg, Lars Von Trier, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, and Kristian Levring. Between them they drafted a(n oft-betrayed) manifesto dedicated to "rescuing" motion pictures from artifice by forbidding special lighting and props brought in from off-site, by advocating handheld camerawork, and by urging an avoidance of recognizable genre definitions. Too often that obsession with bypassing convention plays a little like convention; over the course of eleven films, it has defined a disquieting genre all its own.
Lone Scherfig's Italian for Beginners is the first Dogme film made by a woman and its first light-hearted romantic comedy. Though the ascription of genre already invalidates a portion of the manifesto (and Italian for Beginners is occasionally not-so-very light-hearted besides), it at once breathes new life into the flagging Dogme movement by expanding its potential subjects and exposes Dogme as the childish, superfluous affectation it is.
Following a roundelay of misfits looking for love in Copenhagen, Italian for Beginners reminds a great deal more of Jump Tomorrow than it does The Idiots. Socially inept bumblers--variously suffering from low self-esteem (doorman Peter Gantzler), pathological clumsiness (Anette Støvelbaek), the death of a wife (Anders Berthelsen), free-floating hostility (Lars Kaalund), the passing of a mother (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen), and a raging Elektra complex (Sara Indrio Jensen)--intersect in delightful orbits around comic situations located in a bakery, a church, and a hotel restaurant. Fate brings them together, surprising connections are revealed, and despite a few pinging glosses of religion and the damage that people do to their children, Italian for Beginners washes out as another inconsequential bit of fluff in the Bread and Tulips tradition that could've looked a lot better.
Despite a confusion with itself, Italian for Beginners feels remarkably effortless. The film's characters are believable (if their motivations are not entirely), and it resolves itself as both more romantic and less disturbing than Jeunet's slickly uncomfortable Amélie. The idea of language as a potential emancipator as well as a barrier is one peculiarly suited for a romantic trifle. When the all-thumbs bakery clerk parlays a sudden windfall into a literal escape for her entire class, it plays like one of those mammoth strikes of feel-good serendipity that used to inform Hollywood musicals. I don't know that Italian for Beginners will be remembered as much more than a more-curious-than-usual Dogme entry, but it is a kind diversion that overcomes the chilliness and pretension of its medium, and that, in itself, is something to celebrate. Originally published: February 22, 2002.