Italian for Beginners

(Lone Scherfig, Denmark, 2000)


When you boil it all down, what is a Dogme film? A story set in everyday life filmed with a handheld camera and recorded with live sound. Looked at this way, there were plenty of Dogme films long before this Danish movement was invented (such as the work of Maurice Pialat), and many contemporary movies that could lay claim to the title if their makers were at all interested in gaining such modish certification (such as Rosetta [1999] by the Dardenne brothers).

Of course, there is more to the Dogme 'vow of chastity', including what amounts to a ban on genre, period setting and even fiction ("the film must not contain superficial action"). The movement's co-creator, Lars von Trier, himself departed from these restrictions with extravagant flair in Dancer in the Dark (2000). In fact, many of the Dogme films delight in somehow circumventing its rules. Like any artistic constraint, the Vow is a spur to cagey creativity.

Lone Scherfig's Italian for Beginners is, amazingly, the twelfth Dogme film (many certified entries in the series go pretty much unseen around the world). It is certainly the best that I have seen. Scherfig admits that this script, shot on a low budget, would have come out as it did irrespective of the Dogme vow. But, on the other hand, if not for the dare provided by Dogme, she may never have taken the plunge.

It is beautifully constructed, multi-character piece, and one of the very finest romantic comedies of the past two decades. Across a number of locations clustered around a hotel and a sports stadium (restaurant, classroom, church, hairdresser), a group of lonely, mostly shy people keep awkwardly meeting.

Some are dealing with loss, such as the new pastor, Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen). Some struggle with low self-esteem, like Jorgen (Peter Gantzler), a timid clerk who has not had sex in many years. Others, like Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund), explode with rage no matter the situation.

Scherfig is careful to give every character a distinctive set of tics and traits that are revealed through action. Olympia (Anette Støvelbaek), for example, becomes clumsy whenever she is excited. Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen) is beset by chronic indecision, causing her to repeatedly miss connecting with her dream lover.

A refreshingly empathetic and optimistic film, Italian for Beginners works its way around to some surprising twists for all these fumbling romantics. But before any potential happy ending can swim into view, Scherfig takes us through a rigorous observation of a society's buttoned-down mores.

Beyond Scandinavia, I suspect this portrait will carry special resonance for British and Australian viewers. Every interaction in the story hinges on the repression of feelings that are bursting to manifest themselves. No filmmaker since Hitchcock has shown so well how codes of public civility block human contact but, simultaneously, spark large thrills from small, accidental transgressions, like the washing of someone else's hair or the fixing of a button on somebody's cardigan.

This cast of loveable, luckless characters would be absolutely lost without their rituals, such as attending a language class each week or showing up for a drink at the same place and time every day. These rituals are pursued with a dedication that bespeaks enormous, unstated yearning – and yet the reality of these routines remains, for the most part, disappointing.

Like Jean Renoir, Scherfig patiently reveals the normal pattern of life in this way and then skilfully breaks it, opening her characters up to the precarious magic of accident and coincidence.

Is this film without fiction, as per the Dogme vow? Hardly. At its centre is a sticky moral dilemma involving murder. And its plot involves not only romantic connections but revelations of hitherto unknown family links. Like so many bittersweet dramas of recent years (including Wonderland [1999] and Stealing Beauty [1996]), Italian for Beginners balances the crushing melancholy of ubiquitous, contemporary solitude against the fragility and preciousness of familial bonds.

When a character in this story finally reaches the moment of realising and admitting to another, "I have inherited you", it is one of the great, sublime testaments of modern cinema. But this moment would mean little if Scherfig had not built a gestalt for us, an overarching system of comparisons between personalities, and balances between disparate moods and values.

Italian for Beginners captures the tenderness and the sadness, the difficulty and the hope, of modern love in an imperfect world. The Dogme may have started as an opportunistic publicity stunt, but this film is the gem that justifies all the nonsense spoken in its name.

MORE Scherfig: Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself

© Adrian Martin June 2002

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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