“Italian for Beginners” is a sweet, unpretentious love story about a group of lonely thirtysomethings in a Danish suburb, all of whom take Italian lessons to put a little spark in their lives. This, however, is a deceptively innocent description, since “Italian For Beginners” bears the heavy stamp of the scowling Dogma brand — the genre spearheaded by Lars Von Trier (“Dancing in the Dark”). Dogma is a set of commandments that now practically dominate the entire Scandinavian filmmaking scene: Thou shalt use hand-held digital cameras, and mix amateurs with professional actors; thou shalt not use special effects, artificial lighting, etc. Self-imposed technical restrictions aside, what really distinguishes Dogma films is the relentless emotional turmoil inflicted on the characters (by implication, it must be pure torture on the actors) and the eerie, near-masochism with which they respond to their trials.
“Italian for Beginners” is textbook Dogma in terms of technique, but the contents are fully liberated from the constraints of its film school. There are no life-shattering accidents, scathing infidelities, unbelievable betrayals or other situations of extreme anguish. It just traces (and then coaxes) the shy blossoms of love to open against the dismal gray of a Danish winter. This is Lone Scherfig’s debut feature and because she is Dogma’s first female director, it is tempting to point out how women are more likely to appreciate humor, are adept at picking up life’s lovelier details, and are less prone to adhere religiously to the Dogma doctrine. (Take that, Lars Von Trier!) In any case, “Italian for Beginners” loosens those tense winter muscles and prepares the senses for the warmth of spring. Believe it or not, this is a genuine, feel-good Dogma movie.
The first moment of well-being (for both viewer and the cast) comes when the characters are attending the Wednesday-night Italian-language class that they look forward to so much. It’s easy to see how the sensuous rhythm of Italian sentences (in marked contrast to the clipped, hard intonations of Danish) enthrall everyone, and they all delight in repeating them with much emphasis on the rolling “r” sounds, that is, until their Italian teacher has a heart attack and is carted off in an ambulance. Desperate to keep the class going, they enlist Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund) as the new instructor. Hal-Finn is the best speaker in the class and sexy in a way that’s mindful of a hulking Great Dane, but he’s deplorably lacking in people skills. Irritable, ill-mannered and friendless except for his devoted best friend Jorgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler), Hal-Finn is far from a dreamboat date but still he manages to catch the attention of hairdresser Karen (Anna Eleonora Jorgensen), who hasn’t dated in a long time as she’s tied to a bed-ridden alcoholic mother.
And so the story goes. Most everyone in the Italian class is harboring some kind of dysfunction: Jorgen Mortensen is impotent from a soccer injury; Olympia (Annette Stovelbaek) is incredibly clumsy, which makes her drop things with loud clatters; Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen) is the newly arrived church pastor who’s getting over the recent death of a schizophrenic wife. The weekly class put them in touch with each other — gentle contacts that otherwise would not have happened among these shy people, embarrassed by their problems and humbled by their inadequacies. It should be noted that not one of them ventures to ask for a date, though it’s painfully clear that everyone is aching for the experience.
When Karen’s histrionic mother and Olympia’s bullying father die, it frees the two women from the chains of filial duty. Gradually, they begin to reclaim their lives and become more assertive. In turn their mood affects the whole class, and after Christmas (and in the last 15 minutes of the story) they all decide to go on a trip to Venice, ostensibly to test their language skills but really to loosen up and give themselves a chance at romance.
To Scherfig’s great credit, none of the relationships are forced, contrived or artificial (she cut her teeth directing soap operas for Danish TV). The pairings-off are natural and tinged with a simple sweetness that’s largely absent from the extravagant love stories we’ve become conditioned to expect from the movies. Andreas and Olympia, for example, are drawn to one another, but he never makes any definite moves, apart from rebuttoning her coat when she buttons it up wrong, or cautiously reaching over with a napkin to wipe away a milk mustache. In the end, they still haven’t made any progress, but there’s an unmistakable tenderness. Fragile and rare like an exotic flower, it makes mere passion look utterly vapid.