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Italian For Beginners
Zentropa Productions
Official Site
Director: Lone Scherfig
Producer: Ib Tardini
Written by: Lone Scherfig
Cast: Anders Berthelsen, Ann Eleonora Jorgensen, Anette Stovelbaek, Peter Gantzler, Lars Kaalund
Rating: out of 5

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.

—Nancy Semin


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