It's about time the oh-so-strict Dogme 95 benefited from a woman's touch. The Danish film movement, with rigid rules like using only available light and sound, has the best of intentions and has produced fascinating work from directors Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dancing in the Dark) and Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration). But in their attempts at filmmaking purity, many of the Dogme 95 films have sometimes felt strident, and distant, unwilling to surrender to the elements of storytelling that make moviegoing fun.
Behold Lone Scherfig's Italian for Beginners, the Dogme 95 film with heart. Imagine Nora Ephron with a hand-held camera and no soundtrack, and you begin to approach the feel of this sweet and often darkly funny look at damaged souls in suburban Copenhagen. Of course, anyone familiar with Ephron's work knows that can come off as a backhanded compliment, but here writer-director Scherfig takes the best elements of Ephron's work (and unfortunately one of its worst) and melds them with an edge that has marked most of the Dogme 95 films. The result is a curious concoction, but one that pushes the movement's boundaries into more accessible and entertaining territory.
The first thing Scherfig sets out to do is draw textured characters who are sympathetic almost in spite of themselves. That she makes all of them almost solely reliant upon The Power of Love to redeem them (there's that nasty Ephron habit) is perhaps the film's only grating flaw. But hey, that's what most love stories suggest anyway. Here in Italian for Beginners Scherfig offers characters who inspire loyalty; you really do want everyone to hook up in the end, because then everything's going to be all right.
Just about everyone here has issues -- hell, who doesn't? But here, Scherfig often uses death as a way of tearing her characters apart as much as bring them together. Love and death. Is it all as simple as that? Newly arrived interim pastor Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen, from Mifune) is racked with self-doubt following the death of his wife. Hair stylist Karen (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen) has a dying mother. Bakery worker Olympia (Anette Støvelbæk) is a failure at everything she does, no thanks to her brow-beating and sickly father. Hotel clerk Jorgen (Peter Gantzler) is dealing with a dead sex drive, while his co-worker Halvfinn (Lars Kaalund) can't control his temper. His sisterly co-worker Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen) is possibly the only one in the film who actually has her shit together, though she pines for Jorgen, who's equally in love with her but not sure if he's worthy or she's interested.
Enter that most Hollywood of plot devices: the Italian language. For it is here where these seemingly disconnected suburbanites often learn how they are bound to each other. And if they can learn to speak the language of love, maybe they'll find it.
Sounds trite? Well, consider that Scherfig contorts the cliche by making just about everyone horrible at speaking the language after countless lessons. Halvfinn, ironically enough -- the only real prick in the group -- is in fact the best one in the class, and is even forced to take over when their native-speaking teacher keels over and dies of a heart attack in class.
Still, this is where Scherfig's excursions into Nephronia become a tad irritating, especially when the connections start to take shape. As a Maserati-driving (and casually good looking) young man, Andreas looks like the kind of pastor who once had a trophy wife, and indeed puts a subtle move on the attractive Karen. But in Scherfig's string-pulling, Andreas has to settle for Olympia because he's the only one who can help her. And Halvfinn's connection to Karen appears to be based on little more than animal attraction, though it's insinuated that if Karen can cut his hair (a la Samson and Delilah), maybe she can tame him and rid him of his temperamental ways. Yeah, sure. Why the hell not? This is, when push comes to shove, a romantic comedy.
Scherfig offers her comedy in bizarre little twists: an embittered pastor who taunts his parishioners and replacement, a funeral with confused guests, a community-center instructor who's way too self-important. Her characters seem like pinballs bouncing around against life's unfair constructs, groping for an elusive happiness they as yet can't even define. When Karen and Olympia, through one of the funeral mix-ups, realize they're sisters, they share their life's dreams. They want the moon, but would be happy for just a sliver off its crescent. Or maybe just someone to love.
Italian for Beginners, with Scherfig's capable though sometimes curious maneuvers, that the Dogme 95 movement doesn't always have to take itself too seriously. Given the genre, does Scherfig have any other choice?
- Copenhagen suburbanites learn the language of love in Lone Scherfig's lighthearted Dogme 95 effort, Italian for Beginners.