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Danish cinematic troublemaker Lars von Trier’s Dogma 95 manifesto bars filmmakers from using many customary devices, including sets, tripods, artificial lighting, and any music that isn’t recorded live during filming. Complying with these edicts has tended to yield movies—notably Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration and von Trier’s own The Idiots—that are rather grim. But writer-director Lone Scherfig has read the rules carefully and found something surprising: Nowhere does it specify that a Dogma flick can’t have a happy ending.
During the first half of Italian for Beginners, viewers may think that Scherfig has made nothing of her discovery. The film—the director’s third but her first under Dogmatic restrictions—introduces an ensemble of lonely 30-something Danes, each as angry or despondent as the next. The newly arrived Andreas (Danish soap-opera star Anders W. Berthelsen, who also starred in Soren Kragh-Jacobsen’s Dogma-certified Mifune) is a visiting minister, the temporary replacement for a hilariously grumpy pastor (Bent Mejding) who was suspended for a significant lapse in ecclesiastical decorum. Although Andreas has a Maserati and a hip attitude toward God, he’s grieving over the recent death of his wife.
Andreas takes up residence in a local hotel, whose sports bar is run by the abrasive Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund), who loves Italian soccer players but hates his customers. Hal-Finn’s only friend is hotel manager Jorgen (Fred Willard lookalike Peter Gantzler), who’s much too timid to pursue the woman he urgently desires—or to follow his boss’s order to fire Hal-Finn before he insults any more patrons.
One hint that companionship, however improbable, might be imminent is that the subplot-hopping scenario matches these sourpusses with three distaff characters, two of them equally mired in Scandinavian gloom. Local hairdresser Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen) makes regular trips to the hospital, where her crabby mother is dying. Olympia (Anette Stovelbak) lives with her frail, abusive father and is currently a bakery clerk; she fears that her clumsiness will lose her that job, as it has so many others. Only the object of Jorgen’s secret affections, sports-bar waitress Giulia, is cheerful—and that’s because she’s actually Italian (although she’s played by Danish actress Sara Indrio Jensen).
These six characters encounter each other at the bar, the bakery, the hair salon, and—after those ailing parents die—at a series of funerals. Juggling calamity and comedy, Scherfig’s script also places several of the sextet—including Olympia, whose father falsely told her that her long-lost mother was an Italian opera singer—at a night-school Italian class, where the instructor suffers a fatal heart attack. The school can’t locate another teacher, but eventually a replacement is found: the bad-tempered (and now unemployed) Hal-Finn. Although the substitute instructor knows only sports-related terms, Italian soon becomes the local language of love. Then fortune conspires to send the new acquaintances to Venice on what would be a voyage of self-discovery if they hadn’t already worked out almost everything before buying their tickets.
In films, Venice is often a place where people go to die—or at least get seriously messed up in one way or another. For the inhabitants of this movie’s working-class Copenhagen suburb, however, any journey would have to be toward a better place. Scherfig’s funny and ultimately sunny movie was made before the recent Danish furor over the new right-wing government’s plan to cut benefits for immigrants, but it’s clear which side the director would take in that debate; in matters of the heart, she’s no Euroskeptic. With its depressed characters—two of them ministers, no less—brooding about death until a Mediterranean emigre turns them toward life, Italian for Beginners plays like a Bergman film that’s eventually commandeered by Fellini—or at least like a less enchanted Danish variation on Enchanted April.
Despite accepting Dogma’s showy anti-style rules, Scherfig is not so grandiose a director as either Bergman or Fellini. Bad tempers and intimations of mortality help steer Italian for Beginners away from romantic-comedy predictability, but so does Scherfig’s affinity for ordinary people and their everyday problems—and performers who are engaging without being movie-star-ish. In a press-kit interview, she contrasts her film with Hollywood vehicles for Julia Roberts or Michelle Pfeiffer: “You watch movies with those women and you want to be those women. These characters, they want to be you.”
In addition to being the first Dogma film to be directed by a woman, Italian for Beginners is the first one to be distributed in the United States by Miramax, the Disney-owned specialist in foreign-made heartwarmers. The film does turn emotionally balmy in the final reel, a Miramax near-requirement, but its characters earn their happiness in earlier scenes that may be too harsh for rom-com fans. Before casting Roberts or Pfeiffer in the remake, the folks over at Disney will probably have to cut the morphine-overdose bit. CP