Italian For Beginners isn’t your typical foreign film;
it’s a Dogme film and so reviewing it requires a brief foreign
language lesson as well, “Dogme for Beginners.” Dogme was
a concept invented by four Danish directors. Their intent:
to purge cinema of its dumbed-down plots and overused special
effects. In their opinion such tendencies robbed film of well-developed
characters and story lines. Thus the Dogme directors devised
10 rules or “The Vow of Chastity” as they jokingly referred
to it. What are the 10 rules? In a nutshell, they ensure that
a film be realistic, showing things as they really are. Of
course these rules and the films produced under them sparked
a huge debate in the cinematic community, generating responses
ranging from harsh criticism to flowing praise.
Of course no single Dogme film to date has adhered to all
the rules, and Italian For Beginners is no exception.
Somewhere in Copenhagen we are introduced to Andreas (Berthelsen),
a minister appointed temporarily to a troubled church. The
regular pastor has gradually become unstable, and tossing
the church organist over the railing has only hastened his
suspension. Through Andreas we meet five other people who
lead seemingly unrelated lives: a hairdresser, a klutzy bakery
worker, an Italian waitress, an ill-tempered restaurant manager,
and his closest friend, a kindly hotel clerk troubled by his
impotence. They cross each other’s paths through chance and
coincidence—as customers at each other’s stores, buying pastries,
or getting a haircut. They also meet through a string of funerals
conducted by the nervous minister, and of course they all
attend Italian lessons offered at the local community center.
To intricately explain how their paths cross would not only
be a frustrating exercise, it would spoil the film’s charm
and cleverness. Through these various encounters these six
lives become closely interconnected and before long characters
are falling in love with one another.
And that’s about where Italian For Beginners begins
to lose it. Instead of giving us a firm ending, Scherfig
allows the screenplay to get away from her. The characters
and the plot, such highly cherished ideas in a Dogme film,
swing out of control. The cranky restaurant manager is a verbally
abusive jerk, but he never seems to realize his behavior is
offensive, and everyone around him seems to tolerate his insults.
Andreas decides to confront the senile pastor who still lingers
around the church as a disruptive presence. Scherfig builds
up to their confrontation but denies the viewer a resolution.
Haphazard endings such as this begin to dominate the film.
The language class then decides to head off for Venice for
an Italian-speaking vacation. This dramatic change in locale
should represent the culmination of the story, a chance for
a turn of events and a climactic finale, but instead the story
simply meanders its way to an end. Deciphering Chinese arithmetic
would probably make more sense and be a more satisfying pursuit
than watching Italian for Beginners.