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Happiness is a Warm Dogma

Light romantic comedy gets an avant-garde edge in Italian for Beginners.



It’s about time Dogma ’95 went all warm and fuzzy. Cutting-edge cinema’s favorite ultra-verité style of the moment won’t stand any test of time unless it can be used effectively on films that don’t involve grimy European gangstas, misogynistic oil-riggers or the gleeful downfall of modern civilization. Director Lone Scherfig—heralded as the first woman to put the camera on her shoulder and tell her actors to make up some of their lines in the Dogma style—has applied the guerrilla tactics to a romantic comedy about lovelorn small-towners in Denmark.

The result is Italian for Beginners, which won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival last year. Despite its stylistic quirks and pretensions, it’s a fairly formulaic, unabashedly straightforward romance. In fact, Scherfig might have managed the biggest subversion of all by using natural light, bad sound equipment and the other Dogma tics on a movie concept that would play just fine in the hands of Meg Ryan and director Garry Marshall. Who’s the revolutionary now, Thomas Vinterberg?

(And why do practitioners of Dogma filmmaking always make such a big deal out of it? You’d think there’s a bunch of guys walking around Copenhagen with “D” letter jackets and membership cards in their wallets.)

Denmark is pretty bleak in the wintertime, and its residents have a cultural fondness for the sun, sand and easy living of Italy. Italian-language classes are big, even in the offbeat community that becomes the home of Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen), a pastor and recent widower who’s hired to replace a preacher who got suspended for throwing the church organist off the roof.

Andreas enrolls in an Italian class where we’re introduced to Olympia, a sweet, clumsy bakery worker; Jorgen, an innkeeper who confesses he can’t get it up; Giulia, an Italian cook and Jorgen’s lust object; Hal-Finn, a restaurant manager and annoying sports fan; and Karen, a cute hairdresser. The class is beset by low attendance and the teacher’s untimely death, but it’s a starting point for a fine set of romantic entanglements. Once the six characters meet, mingle and couple, they make a revelatory trip to Venice.

Yes, it’s all a bit Lake Wobegon and a bit Enchanted April. There’s also a hard Dogma edge to much of Italian for Beginners which, while it sometimes irritates, sometimes lends a sound feeling of plausibility to the normally fantastical setting of romantic comedy. For example, two of the characters have horrible parents whose evil obviously impaired their emotional growth; their presence gives the film a heft it wouldn’t otherwise have.

Lars Kaalund, as the hilariously antisocial Hal-Finn, gives an outstanding performance full of clever humanistic touches. So does Anette Stovelbaek as Olympia, whose asshole father is the bane of her quietly desperate existence. The comic touches are both light and black, yet the screenplay never loses sight of its essential optimism. All six leads benefit from the sculpting of Scherfig, who also wrote the picture with an eye toward character above all else.

If it wasn’t shot with shaky cameras and bad lighting, Italian for Beginners might be this spring’s Amélie in the States. It’s not as whimsical as that French import, but it’s no less satisfying unless you don’t enjoy Dogma’s famous “10 Vows of Chastity” and the incoherence they wreak. Some of the dialogue is hard to hear (admittedly, not much of a problem unless you understand Danish and can’t read subtitles), and the artsy feel of the handheld shots will only annoy the Blockbuster set.

But that’s part of the point Scherfig is trying to make with a romantic comedy about six mismatched people coming together. Not everything fits the way you might like, but it’s foolish to deny something that feels right.