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Language Lessons

Six lonely strangers connect in the beguiling Italian for Beginners

To call a movie the most accessible Dogme 95 film ever made is not merely damning with faint praise. It also threatens to alienate the two segments of the population that might consider going to see such a film in the first place: fans of the back-to-basics, no-frills-of-any-kind Danish filmmaking doctrine (who will bristle at the word accessible) and those of us whose stomachs churn at the mere thought of the shaky, handheld camera work that is the Dogme manifesto's most noticeable, as opposed to notable, feature (think The Celebration).

Instead, let it be said that the new Danish film Italian for Beginners (Italiensk for begyndere), about six ordinary and rather lonely people who meet when they take an introductory Italian class, will make you smile and laugh. Repeatedly. Written and directed by Lone Scherfig (it's worth noting she's female), Italian for Beginners is a funny, charming ensemble piece so delightful you may find you can't stop smiling even when the movie ends. In Danish, with English subtitles, the film has a decidedly melancholy streak and a wonderful allowance of black comedy. The picture deservedly won the Silver Bear at last year's Berlin Film Festival and the Public Prize at the 2001 Paris Film Festival.

Chief among the central characters, all of whom are in their mid-thirties, is recently widowed minister Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen), who has just arrived in Copenhagen to replace the current pastor, a misanthrope suspended for attacking a parishioner. Andreas ends up joining the Italian class, which meets one evening a week. His classmates include Finn (Lars Kaalund), an antisocial restaurant manager whose belligerence toward his customers threatens to bankrupt the place; Olympia (Anette Støvelbæk), a sweet but woefully clumsy bakery clerk, forever trying to please her abusive father; Karen (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen), an attractive hairdresser coping with an alcoholic, cancer-ridden mother; Jørgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler), a lovelorn hotel manager and friend of Finn's; and Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen), the Italian waitress whom Jorgen worships from afar.

Italian class becomes a place for the troubled Danes played by Ann Eleonora Jørgensen and Lars Kaalund to connect each week.
Miramax Films
Italian class becomes a place for the troubled Danes played by Ann Eleonora Jørgensen and Lars Kaalund to connect each week.

Each character is coping with his or her individual pains and sorrows, and almost instinctively they find themselves drifting toward the new pastor for advice and comfort. Andreas, already nervous about his first professional posting, is still trying to come to grips with his wife's death. The Italian class serves as a little oasis in their lives, something to look forward to each week and a way to connect with other people.

The ensemble cast is pitch perfect; in fact, everyone is so good it's impossible to single out one or two over the others. The humor is both gentle and wildly irreverent, and also consistently unexpected, a tough trick to master. Credit must go to writer-director Scherfig, whose sense of timing and feel for character prove unerring, as does her handling of actors. As for the camera work, yes, we are subjected to Dogme's characteristic quick pans and jittery shooting style, complete with in-your-face, jerky close-ups, but it isn't nearly as extreme -- nor as disconcerting -- as director Lars Von Trier's famously nausea-inducing approach. The Dogme rules (the "Ten Vows of Chastity," as disciples of the doctrine refer to them) at last allow for viewing pleasure and physical comfort.

The French hit Amélie, with which Italian for Beginners is double-billed, has gotten a lot of attention, and deservedly so, as the viewer-friendly, put-a-smile-on-your-face movie that lured even those who normally shy away from foreign-language films. Italian for Beginners lacks the whimsy of the Gallic import and, because of its camera style, probably wouldn't serve as a novice's best introduction to films in alien tongues. Those caveats aside, however, Italian is a pure delight, the kind of film only a curmudgeon could resist.

 
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