Italian for Beginners

Although this is the twelfth 'official' Dogma film, Italian for Beginners is the first film to truly fulfill the intentions of the Danish collective. Not all twelve films have made it here, recent films include The King is Alive and Mifune. Most Dogma films share a bleak outlook on life, matching their stripped down approach to filmmaking. Italian for Beginners differs in that there are actually people to care about, and the movie ends on a somewhat rosy note. At heart, this is a romantic comedy, the first one done in this 'authentic' style. This means that everybody is ordinary, so people watching can relate to what is happening on screen. Amongst the characters, there are no spoiled actors, noblemen from the 18th century, or believers in the infallibility of fate. Taking away the trademark character quirks, special effects, and soundtrack overkill leaves only the core personalities to anchor the movie.

Another reason Italian for Beginners is so heartwarming is that writer/director Lone Scherfig (On Our Own, The Birthday Trip) manages to delve deeply into her characters lives. She takes the audience into the depths of their despair, so people can see whom they truly are. Andreas (Anders Berthelsen, Mifune, The Weight of Water) is the new local priest. Not only is this his first assignment, he is still reeling from the recent death of his wife, the congregation attendance is minimal, and the former priest is still lurking around. He lives in a hotel where Jorgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler, Help I'm a Fish, No Man's Land), is the porter. Jorgen is lonely, and his boss wants him to fire his friend Halvfinn (Lars Kaalund, Flickering Lights, The One and Only). Halvfinn is the confrontational owner of the hotel sports bar. He works with Guilia (a thoroughly charming Sara Indrio Jensen), a young Italian woman that Jorgen has a crush on. Unbeknownst to Jorgen, Guilia also has a crush on him.

Meanwhile, Andreas meets Olympia (Anette Stovelback, On Our Own), a clumsy bakery worker dealing with an overbearing father who wants her at home all the time. Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen, On Our Own), the local hairdresser, must deal with her sick mother. All of them lead depressing lives, but Scherfig's script plunges them further into the morose. Just when it seems things cannot get any worse for everybody, they all converge upon an adult education Italian class for beginners. Some, like Andreas and Olympia, want something to pass the time. Others are there for other people; Jorgen wants to learn Italian to speak to Guilia, and Karen wants to be around Halvfinn. This class is the impetus for all of them to turn their lives around. They have nothing else to do, so why not?

Dogma films must adhere to a strict set of rules that include none of the 'tricks' like lighting, music, or fancy camera shots present in most movies. The handheld, shaky camera adds a sense of intimacy, as if the viewer is following these characters around. Each character is so unpretentious, so ordinary and charming. Scherfig adds sense of humor to Italian for Beginners, something desperately missing from other Dogma films. The movie ends with a field trip to Italy. By the time this happens, Scherfig has crafted fully developed personalities that people can relate to. Each of these people are extremely hesitant to start new relationships, so they take small steps in their road to recovery. And each step forward is a wonderful turn in the story, and its hard waiting to see what will happen next. Scherfig's characters are believable, another element not present in most movies. Italian for Beginners is a real romantic comedy, one that is both poignant and fun to watch.

Mongoose Rates It: Really Good.
1 hour, 39 minutes, Danish and Italian with English subtitles,

Back to Movies