Italian for Beginners (Italiensk for Begyndere) (Denmark, 2000) ** 3/4
Directed & written by Lone Scherfig. Photography, Jorgen Johanson. Editing, Gerd Tjur. Cast: Anders W. Berthelsen, Anette Stovelbaek, Peter Gantzler, Ann Eleonora Jorgensen, Lars Kaalund, Sandra Indrio Jensen, et al. A Miramax release. 112 minutes. In Danish & Italian, with clear subtitles. R (brief sex scene)
If the Amish started making movies they might follow some of the virginal precepts of Dogme 95, that collective of filmmakers-- led by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg-- who got together in the Spring of 1995 in Copenhagen and issued a manifesto, a program of good intentions. Some would say "a gimmick."
Dogme 95 trumpeted the death of movies as we know them, individualism (including the auteur theory), artifice, technology, etc. It was opposed to "the Babel" of cinema with its superficiality and its many sins.
The group came up with its own Decalogue, a 10-point "Wow of Chastity." This included shooting on location only, with props limited to those already in the location. Sound (and music) must stem organically from the settings. Cameras must be hand-held. Color must be used but without special lighting. Optical works and filters are taboo.. So is "superficial action, murders, weapons, etc." So is "temporal and geographical alienation." Genre movies are unacceptable. Film format must be Academy 35mm. Directors are not credited.
The above plus much else make this a Shaggy Dogme story told with a solemnity that's unwittingly funny. A mixed bag of 26 movies has come from its purist/puritanical members or adherents in several countries, including the USA. Film number 12 "Italian for Beginners" is the first of the lot to have been made by a woman. It is Weird and Screwy Cinema engendered by a screwball theory. No classic, but pretty interesting and a bare-bones must for audiences interested in something different
The setting is Copenhagen but it feels like an isolated area, a small, free-standing agglomerate, a village or a corner in a small provincial town.
Andreas ( Berthelsen) is a young, rookie pastor, recently graduated as well as widowed. He arrives in the area as temporary replacement of the regular, older pastor who's gone loco in some ways. Andreas, a sweet and modern fellow, drives a very expensive Italian sports car, a Maserati which, distressingly, is never shown. This automotive detail strikes me in two ways: 1) graduating clergymen in Denmark must be astronomically well paid; 2) Dogme 95, while not stating it in the manifesto, does not object to absurdism.
Andreas meets the small, "Kammerspiel" cast of characters. They are mostly in their thirties. Each, in his/her way, is a weirdo. There's the 40-something hotel concierge, the timid Jorgen who has not had sex in four years and suffers from a special sort of impotence. His best friend is the youngish restaurant manager Halvfinn (Kaaslund), irascible beyond description. Indescribable too is his horrid hair and aborted beard. The restaurant's sole cook-waitress is pretty Giulia who speaks only Italian. Olympia is a cute and monumentally clumsy bakery employee. Then we have Karen, the gutsy hairdresser.
An aside. John Simon is the acerbic, never-pleased film critic of the National Review. Though Yugoslav-born he has a wonderful command of English with which he fires 18-inch gun salvos at movies that others praise. His quirky articles are amusing, sharp and refreshing. Long ago he coined the funniest pun about Luis Bunuel's gem "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie." A bunch of bourgeois friends are trying to have a meal together, but a series of unusual interruptions keep preventing it. Simon summed up the film as "co-eatus interruptus."
Here we have a tonsorial equivalent as Halvfinn repeatedly goes to Karen for a haircut but interruptions don't let it materialize. Amusing..
There's no "true" plot Andreas's parishioners show up at services number so few that, as a nun points out, the services can be cancelled. (This will change radically.) Olympia's father is an immobile monster who makes her life miserable. Karen's mother is an alcoholic who looks like a bag-lady and has terminal cancer. It's a bad scene for everybody..
The one bright spot is the local Ccultural Center where the main figures and others (for totals of six or seven) take Italian lessons from the ebullient Signore Marcello. Symbolically and factually, the Italian language is the one bright spot in those lives. Marcello suddenly dies ('e morto il professore!') At the same time, Halvfinn who yells at his cuistomers for having poor table manners, gets fired. But as the best student of Italian he is appointed teacher of that language.
How and where did Halvfinn learn his excellent Italian is left unexplained. So is the source of his wages. This amount to "Maserati, Part II.". Does Denmark shower gold on its Adult Education teachers? Fantasies pile up. There are unlamented deaths. As in a penny dreadful, two local women find out they are sisters. Improvisations and non sequiturs multiply. You may have a problem deciding which lady is which. It's a mad, mad, mad little world that makes little sense yet has its own brand of appeal. Eventually, mostly thanks to the Italian language, romantic couples form and enjoy happiness. (To my chagrin, the pastor sells his Maserati. The finale is feel-good as in many of the Hollywood pictures that Dogme castigates. It takes place in a bad-postcard Venice).
Within the narrow confines of that tiny world of not-too-melancholy Danes there are echoes of Commedia dell Arte improvisations.
To what extent the Dogme's tenets are fully observed escapes me. Shooting on video rather than film makes for mediocre though acceptable visuals. The handheld camera in motion is so steady that I suspect cheating, that supports were used. But those are not fatal flaws in a work that has its own devious, quirky charm.
The film and its people have collected a nice number of awards, including the Berlin Festival's Silver Bear.