Italian for Beginners



                The Danish film movement known as Dogme '95 has produced mixed
        results. The manifesto, crafted somewhat with tongue firmly planted in
        cheek, purports to return the moviemaking experience to its primal state,
        where directors avoid such things as taking credit and using natural light
        and no dramatic underscore. The movement arguably produced one
        masterpiece,
CELEBRATION, and one near miss, MIFUNE. Contrast those
        assured and engrossing tales with such dreck as
THE KING IS ALIVE and
        julien donkey-boy (the only American-directed entry). Up until now, the
        movement has been dominated by male directors, so one has to approach
        ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS, the initial Dogme effort from a female director,
        with interest. Happily, the result ranks as one of the movement's successes.

                This bittersweet comedy/drama is set in contemporary Denmark and
        brings together a disparate group of quirky individuals. Andreas (Anders W.
        Berthelsen) is a recently widowed pastor who has been selected to replace
        an ill-tempered cleric who was accused of striking a parishioner. On his
        arrival, he encounters Jorgen (Peter Ganzler), a mild-mannered manager of
        a hotel with a seemingly unrequited crush on the establishment's
        Italian-born waitress Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen). In fact, Giulia prays that
        Jorgen will get the courage to talk to her and ask her out. Her boss, who
        happens to be Jorgen's best friend, is Halvfinn (Lars Kaalund), noted for his
        floppy hair, his quick temper, and his adoration of all things to do with
        football (that is, soccer to Americans). In fact, Halvfinn learned to speak
        Italian when that country's football team were guests at his hotel.

                The object of his affection is Karen (Ann Eleanora Jorgenson), a local
        hairdresser coping with her angry and terminally ill mother. Also dealing with
        a belligerent parent -- in this case a father who makes cruel and cutting
        remarks -- is Olympia (Annette Stovelbaek) whose clumsiness keeps her
        from holding permanent employment for long. While it takes a bit to introduce
        each of these major players, eventually the sextet come together at the local
        recreation center where most have enrolled to learn to speak Italian.

                While the film has the outward appearance of a romantic comedy, a
        darker undercurrent runs through it. Indeed, the death toll is rather high.
        The first to expire is Olympia's father, whose funeral brings her to the
        pastor's attention. Karen's mother, hospitalized and in the end stages of her
        illness, begs her daughter to commit euthanasia. That death leads to Karen
        discovering a long-buried secret and her surprising connection to one of the
        other principals. As part of learning Italian, the group decides to embark on
        a trip to Italy where romance finally blooms and the film doesn't so much
        end as fades away. While that may be true to real life, reel life does require
        some sort of resolution and the tentative one posited at film's end is its
        biggest weakness.

                For her third effort, director Lone Scherfig restores the luster to Dogme '95,
        proving that it can handle more lightweight fare. The usual handheld camerawork
        doesn't call attention to itself. One may quibble that the screenplay relies too much
        on coincidences, it might be argued that Shakespeare and many other writers
        have used that device. Despite its flaws,
ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS proves
        to be enjoyable and entertaining and well worth viewing.




                          
Rating:                              B+
                          
MPAA Rating:                 R
                          
Running time:                  100 mins.
© 2005 by C.E. Murphy. All Right Reserved.