Think about the Scandinavian climate and its myths, literature, and films—and somber images of icy bleakness come to mind. No wonder that sunny Italy would conjure warm, romantic thoughts for Danes and make an ideal spot for a holiday. Such is the case for Lone Scherfig's Italian for Beginners (Italiensk for begyndere), gaining a wider release in the U.S. after picking up a number of European festival awards, highlighted with the 2001 Silver Bear at Berlin. This must be the year of the charming foreign comedy for Miramax—first Amelie and now Scherfig's lower budgeted cinema vérité style film. Italian for Beginners should have made it to U.S. arthouses much sooner—it contains more memorable scenes than the lighter Amelie.
To qualify as a Dogme film writer/director Scherfig follows the Dogme Manifesto “Vow of Chastity” championed by Lars von Trier (The Idiots) by using a hand held camera for shooting the color film on location without special lighting, music, or subsequent sound dubbing.
The shaky hand held camera at first seems disorienting but gets steadier as the film progresses—or easier to handle as it gains intimacy with six lonely characters, whose lives intertwine through a weekly class in Italian. After seeing so many movies where relationships are forged through "chance" meetings that feel manipulative and unreal, it's refreshing to see Scherfig's reality based slice of life (well, she does devise co-incidental deaths of three parental characters to bring the ensemble together). Most of the characters are very likeable and rather ordinary, nice people who remain transfixed in their private ruts in a Copenhagen neighborhood.
Initially we meet the pastor (Anders W. Berthelsen), who arrives to temporarily replace a curmudgeon so sour that he threw the church organist off the balcony. He continues to attend services to heckle Bethelsen's sermons in the now sparsely attended church. The congregation doesn’t have the heart (or courage) to kick the older pastor out of his residence—he's on suspension.
That introduces the pastor to hotel manager Jørgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler), a reticent man, whose best friend is his polar opposite. Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund) runs the hotel's sports bar, continually haranguing the customers for a variety of offenses—shouting “shut up” is a favorite. Hal-Finn’s hair is too long and he belligerently dismisses the idea of a hair net—What? Run a sports bar in a hair net!!! So Jorgen is assigned to fire his friend, but hesitates . . . and tells him about his romantic problems instead.
Why does Jorgen remain buddies with such a lout? Hal-Finn is pretty good at speaking Italian, and he just happens to have a beautiful young Italian-speaking waitress, Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen), working the sports bar. Jorgen fancies her but thinks he's too old, ugly, and incompetent, but he's practicing his Italian to work up the courage to ask Giulia if she'll go on a “promenade” with him. Unbeknownst to Jorgen, she too has been fantasizing about him in private while remaining coyly silent in public.
Two more important women must be added to the mix to even out the sexual balance. Young Olympia (Anette Støvelbæk) plays the quintessential blonde on her 43rd job since high school, working in a bakery and suffering the verbal abuse of her lazy (or invalid) father. Why so many jobs? She's a klutz (or was something wrong at birth) who drops nearly everything she touches—so you can imagine what she does with the pastries and eggs in the shop. She dreams of Venice and escaping her rut, so she disobeys her tyrannical father to join the Italian class.
Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen) also has a troublesome parent—her ailing alcoholic mother—who constantly interrupts her daughter at her hair salon. Italy and romance are difficult for her to imagine while caring for her mother, but . . .
Believable relationships form quite naturally without resorting to standard Shakespearean comedy devices—the end results are predictable but no men pose as women or vice versa, and no one hides his/her identity along the way. To make sure that the film doesn't become overly sentimental, there's even a Nordic rant directed at the cranky old pastor that touches on the uselessness of his nihilistic behavior.
Most of all, the wit and humor of these human beings highlight the film and draw us into their lives. Location shooting in Denmark is irrelevant other than its use as a plot device, and the later scene in Venice is essentially the only establishing shot in the film—it is strictly a plot device and done with dry humor. Mostly the camera maintains medium and short close-ups to reveal each character remarkably well, and they come across as real and likeable.
Each has a distinct personality and eccentricities, and that's what makes the two hours fly by. People who have feared checking out Scandinavian films, fearing the obscurities and thinking required by Igmar Bergman or Lars von Trier, can relax and enjoy this more approachable film. More pretentious types should find the film acceptable entertainment. Although the film boils down to a lightweight story about matchmaking, the characters make Italian for Beginners worth the journey.