Italian for Beginners

Italiensk for begyndere

Director: Lone Scherfig
Year: 2001
Country: Denmark
Running time: 112 mins
Screenplay: Lone Scherfig
Production Co: Zentropa Entertainments6/
DRTV/Danish Film Institute
Producer: Ib Tardini
Photography: Jørgen Johansson
Editor: Gerd Tjur
Sound: Rune Palving
In Danish and Italian with English subtitles

Andreas: Anders W. Berthelsen
Olympia: Anette Støvelbæk
Jørgen Mortensen: Peter Gantzler
Karen: Ann Eleonora Jørgensen
Hal-Finn: Lars Kaalund
Giulia: Sara Indrio Jensen

Festivals: Berlin, Toronto, New York, Vancouver 2001
A confirmed film festival crowd-pleaser, Lone Scherfig’s Italian for Beginners is a funny, relationship-driven ensemble piece that takes the chill out of the Danish winter with a snuggly blanket of humanism.

Scherfig’s third feature is the first Dogme film to be directed by a woman, and it’s by far the tendency’s most benign example. A youngish, recently widowed, Maserati-driving pastor (Anders W. Berthelsen) takes over a diminished congregation in a drab Copenhagen suburb and, amid a flurry of introductory scenes, falls in with (and, ultimately, helps sort out) a crowd of mildly eccentric, somewhat vulnerable thirtysomething singles. Four of the movie’s six main characters are taking Italian lessons at a community night school – the remaining two principals are Italian, albeit played by Danish actors. (To the degree that the movie has a subtext, it might be that these ‘new Danes’ have brought a welcome Mediterranean passion to a less hospitable clime.)

…Scherfig’s handheld camerawork is moderately hectic. A few jump cuts aside, however, the greatest violence is emotional – specifically in the unhappy parent-child relations that serve to mute the film’s latent sitcom narrative. Similarly, the plot’s comic mix-ups and unlikely complications are naturalized by the application of the Dogme documentary aesthetic, more working-class here than usual, and tempered by a pervasive sense of mortality. (There are fewer weddings in this comedy than funerals.)

Although the performances are energetic, with plenty of drinking, there’s none of the outrageous ‘spassing’ that characterized previous films released under the Dogme imprimatur. The generous spirit of Jean Renoir has been much invoked recently in relation to Robert Altman’s enjoyable… Gosford Park. I’d hesitate to make such claims for a tea cozy like this, but although slighter and less showy than Altman’s ensemble piece, Italian for Beginners is actually closer to the empathetic Renoir world of transcendent camaraderie, where the ordinary is beatified and even villains have their reasons.

Heartwarmingly predicated on second chances and last-minute redemptions, Scherfig’s human comedy is sweet and cuddly, but not nearly as sentimental as it might have been. You’d need to be a tougher cookie than me to resist the pastor’s helpless, benevolent gaze (and surprise tattoo) or the Italian beauty’s inexplicable but radiant devotion to a bumbling Dane a dozen years her senior. — J. Hoberman, Village Voice, 16/1/02