REVIEW: Life is Beautiful -- and Danish; Dogma 5's "Italian for Beginners"
by G. Allen Johnson
[EDITOR’S NOTE: “Italian for Beginners” had its world premiere at the 2001 Berlin Film Festival. Following are excerpts from G. Allen Johnson’s review, first published by indieWIRE on Feb. 13, 2001. It opened in New York and Los Angeles on Jan. 18 and will expand to the top 10 U.S. markets this week.]
Oh, those pesky Dogma auteurs. Here they had us thinking that they were out to reinvent cinema, when really all they wanted to make was genre films.
But oh, what genre films they are. On the heels of last year’s rephrasing of the movie musical, Lars von Trier‘s “Dancer in the Dark,” along comes the group’s minimalist take on romantic comedies, “Italian for Beginners,” which is officially Danish Dogma 5, and has the distinction of being the first Dogma film to be directed by a woman, the uncredited Lone Scherfig.
Scherfig, like her illustrious predecessors, has made a compelling, free-flowing film. Though properly nasty in the first half of the film — at times, “Italian for Beginners” is a savagely funny jet-black comedy with almost a gothic bent (thus fulfilling the enfant terrible credentials all Dogma directors must display). The plot sweetens in the latter half without betraying the characters, and without ceasing to be hilarious. It may go down easy, but Scherfig doesn’t take the easy way out.
Set in a small Danish town, “Italian for Beginners” focuses on six characters whose lives have fallen in such despair that their only source of continued happiness is a weekly Italian class they share.
Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen) is a pastor who has come to take over the town’s church months after his wife’s death. He is staying at the local hotel, where he instantly bonds with a lonely concierge, Jorgen (Peter Gantzler). Jorgen has a crush on the pretty young Italian waitress at the hotel cafe, Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen), who is constantly at odds with the manager, Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund), an openly abrasive man who speaks fluent Italian and dreams of playing for an Italian soccer team. If he doesn’t want to fill a customer’s order, he tells them to fuck off.
Meanwhile, two women — a hairdresser, Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen) and a baker’s assistant, Olympia (Anette Stovelbek) — are having problems as the only caretakers of their respective parents, who are both ill and cranky.
As frustrations with their lot in life builds, their only outlet is the Italian class, which not only gives them a taste of the world beyond their hamlet but also becomes a source of dreams — they’d love to go there someday. As one replies, when asked if she is married: “No, but I take Italian lessons.”
Not even the death of their Italian instructor, one of the customary darkly humorous jolts the film provides, can dampen their enthusiasm. They continue to show up for class even though no one will teach them, and finally the caustic Hal-Finn agrees to step in.
Shot in digital video, which is now typical of Dogma films (even though item nine of the original Dogma manifesto dictates the film be shot on 35mm film — but who’s keeping score, item eight intones, “genre movies are not acceptable”), and obviously improvised by the talented cast from Scherfig’s working script, “Italian for Beginners” actually makes loss and loneliness fun.
When Jorgen confides to Hal-Finn that he has an impotence problem and hasn’t had sex in four years, an incredulous Hal-Finn asks, “What about that maid I saw you with?” Jorgen sheepishly answers, “No, I couldn’t do it.” Shaking his head, Hal-Finn replies, “Oh, and she was in uniform, too.”
In a sharply executed sequence, Andreas is to preside over two funerals, the first being Olympia’s father. Confused mourners arriving for the second funeral have to be sent away. In between services, the smitten Andreas takes Olympia out for coffee, and the date extends past the starting time of the second funeral. Other romantic comedy conventions are turned on their ear, such as a running joke that has Hal-Finn, who has a crush on Karen, being unable to get a haircut when he goes to her shop.
Even in the editing, Scherfig has a fresh take. When Olympia drops a china cup after receiving a surprise, the director cuts away before the inevitable, cliched shattering.
The funny part about all this is that much of the Dogma manifesto is ludicrous, and most of its auteurs seem to know it. Von Trier has made four films since creating the creed with Thomas Vinterberg in the spring of 1995, but only one, “Idiots,” is Dogmatic. Scherfig, who made two films with all the bells and whistles prior to “Italian for Beginners,” spent the past weekend here in Berlin telling reporters how she craved to return to working in “film in the classic style.”
But give the movement credit. It has reinvigorated world cinema — and not just the Danish product — and anticipated the no-budget DV craze we have now. “Italian for Beginners” is fresh and exciting, with a demanding, intelligent script and performances so precise, so fine that anyone who is interested in the craft of acting should see this film. Others who should see it: Any incurable romantic who can take a little salt and pepper with that sugar.