Don’t be fooled by the movie poster for Italian for Beginners. With an image of the canals of Venice and a woman’s legs sexily kicked back in a gondola, the poster makes the film look like a run-of-the-mill Hollywood romantic comedy. But this is an officially approved Dogme 95 film, so you know that it won’t be your ordinary cineplex fare.
For those of you not keeping up with cults of art-house Danish filmmaking styles, the Dogme Manifesto was created in 1995 by a group of filmmakers vowing to bring movie-making back to its most primal purity. To be approved as a Dogme film, you had to strictly follow certain filmmaking rules: no special effects, only natural lighting, only hand-held digital cameras and natural sound, lots of improv on the part of the actors, etc. It is an interesting idea, creating what often look like very raw, low-budget home movies, but make up for that with almost always good if not excellent films (The Celebration, The King is Alive, Mifune).
Italian for Beginners takes place almost entirely in an unnamed provincial town in Denmark, where a motley group of lonely adults are taking a once-a-week night class to learn Italian. Mostly thirty-something, they all have some baggage, some ruined dreams, some personal losses, showing on their refreshingly non-movie-star faces.
There’s a widower pastor (Anders W. Berthelsen), a clumsy woman who works at a bakery (Anette Støvelbæk), a lonely hairdresser (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen), an insecure hotel desk clerk (Peter Gantzler), and a confrontational waiter that harasses his customers (Lars Kaalund), to name a few of the major players in the excellent ensemble cast. These people are slightly disheveled, or a bit doughy, or maybe a little nervous… in other words, they are real people. They are the type of people that, as you get to know them, you find that it is their inner qualities that make them attractive.
Italian for Beginners is, above all, a very funny movie. But it is also surprisingly sweet and moving. The characters of course all pair up and fall in love; you can see this coming from miles away. But it’s like the delight of watching good friends finally find happiness. You can’t help but root for them anyway.
Here’s a film that doesn’t call for the suspension of belief that Julia Roberts can’t get a date, or that Meg Ryan can only find a perfect man with the help of a little time-travel. With all of the Hollywood gloss and pretense stripped away, Italian for Beginners is a romantic comedy for the rest of us.