Italian For Beginners

Is it false advertising if the legs on the poster don’t appear in the film?

I remember somewhat fondly the first day of my basic Italian class in college.  “Why Italian?” the professor, a man by the name of Fernando Mallozzi, asked every student one by one.  When we had timidly related our reasons, some genuine and some clearly made up on the spot, he asked if we had any questions for him.  After a long silence, a student in the back called out, “Does anyone call you ‘Nando?”

Italian For Beginners is a Danish film featuring six principle characters, lonely single people seeking some sort of figurative freedom, triggering a sequence of life-altering(ish) events by taking a basic Italian language course.  The “beginners” in my college Italian class made this film’s “beginners” look like tenured professionals.

Lone Sherfig’s light-hearted(ish) romance/slice-o’-life film is part of the defunct Danish “Dogme 95” movement, which involves such avant-garde techniques as natural lighting, no music, and hand-held cameras.  Film critic and mudslinger Armond White refers to this movement as “insignificant,” and perhaps, yes, forcing a checklist of unbreakable rules on a film director is a bit like telling a fiction writer he can’t use conjunctions, but surely this movement did something for the art of film-making during its five year run – namely, showing that it’s possible to make a watchable, quality piece of art on a very low budget.

The film itself features an eclectic cast of immediately likable characters, including Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen), a pastor learning the ropes of his job while dealing with the loss of his wife; Olympia (Anette Støvelbæk), a baker’s apprentice rendered hopelessly accident-prone as a result of prenatal alcohol damage; Jørgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler), an aging hotel employee and single everyman; Karen (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen), a hairdresser caring for her dying mother; Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund), a callous restaurant manager who can’t seem to hold a job due to his temper; and Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen), an Italian waitress who does not speak the native language (Danish).

Conflicts are abound as soon as the film starts, which is a good move in a film that doesn’t have much to look at or listen to aside from people and dialogue (you’re not getting CG and flashy setpieces from Sherfig).  Mortensen is in love with a woman ten years younger than he is, who does not speak his language, and he is also tasked with firing his best friend.  Olympia is friendless and cannot deal with the pressures of the bakery (why she is the only employee and the baker is never seen is never touched upon).  Karen’s situation with her mother interferes with her life to the point that she must make a decision that would make D.H. Lawrence proud (Sons and Lovers. Read it).  Hal-Finn loses his job and has only one friend, who barely tolerates him, though his biggest immediate challenge seems to be getting a haircut, as he tries unsuccessfully on three separate occasions to have Karen give him a clip.

Through one thing and another, the Italian class brings these people together, and through charming (if incredibly convenient) twists and turns, gives them all, in a way, what they’re looking for.  The characters are a well-rounded bunch who are fun to spend time with.  Despite the constraining principles of Dogme 95, the film itself delivers a satisfying and accessible story to those not accustomed to foreign films (as well as those who are).

Dogme 95 sought to “purify” film, but only succeeded as far as Johnny Ramone’s dress code “purified” music.  Perhaps if we are going to purify an art form, in this case film, I’d like to throw my thoughts on the table: instead of constraining the artist, let’s just think about the “why” behind the action.  I can think of a few principles off the bat: 1.  Don’t use CG  A)  to portray an entire set; B) to portray human action (yes, the only living things that should be computer-generated are things that don’t actually exist); C) if you imagine an audience reacting to your CG the same way you reacted when you first saw porn.  2.  Hmm… is there anything besides CG, endless money hoses, lack of creativity and general greed ruining films today?  Oh yes: 3D.  An article for another time.

Italian For Beginners (2000); written and directed by Lone Sherfig; starring Peter Gantzler, Lars Kaalund, and Ann Eleonora Jørgensen.

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