Italian for Beginners

Director: Lone Scherfig. Cast: Anders W. Berthelsen, Peter Gantzler, Lars Kaalund, Ann Eleanora Jørgensen, Anette Støvelbaek, Sara Indrio Jensen, Rikke Wölek, Bent Mejding, Lene Tiemroth, Jesper Christensen, Carlo Barsotti. Screenplay: Lone Scherfig (based on the novel Evening Class by Maeve Binchy).

It's already happening: Lone Scherfig's Italian for Beginners is winning a reputation as "the sweet one" among the Dogme films. If the existing constellation of Danish vérité exercises could be imagined, for a moment, as Snow White's dwarves, Thomas Vinterberg's inaugural entry, 1998's The Celebration, would probably be Grumpy, Lars von Trier's spastic The Idiots would be Sneezy, and Kristian Levring's torpid The King Is Alive, in effect if not in ambition, would be Sleepy. (That is to say, watching The King Is Alive, I was Sleepy.) Italian for Beginners, make no mistake, is Happy, or maybe it's Snow White herself, and not because it's the first of the lot to be directed by a woman. The whole romantic roundelay seems designed to convince us that, Hey, the ascetic formal constraints of no artificial lighting, no props, and no superimposed music do not have to equal no fun. Dogme directors can whistle while they work, a proposition that excites me. After all, though plenty of people abhorred The King Is Alive, I was among the few who also grumbled through The Celebration. The aesthetic implications of so much Dogme filmmaking—the stripping down of the filmmaking process prompting a stripping down of bare character psychology, inevitably revealing that People Are Horrid—have not been distressing or even offensive so much as they have been obvious, relentlessly so, and therefore boring. Without the conceit of its handheld approach, The Celebration and most of its ilk would have no reason to exist.

The idea of a peppy Dogme film sounds enticing, then, albeit an incongruous enticement, reminiscent of Bergman's choice in 1955 to throw his formula of existential angst to the wind and reinvent himself with Smiles of a Summer Night, a sparkling comedy that was eventually, and ironically, his breakout international hit. Sadly, though, Italian for Beginners follows a very different path. Scherfig, working from a novel by Circle of Friends author Maeve Binchy, has fashioned a fairy-tale ensemble of romantic clichés whose fanciful characters and indulgence in coincidence stand at awkward disjunction from the documentary affect of the filmmaking. Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen), a recent widower, is horribly nervous about his debut as pastor in a church whose regular presider, Reverend Wredmann (Bent Mejding), has been forced into hiatus. Jørgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler), a minor administrator at a hotel, hasn't achieved an erection in four years. His best pal, Halvfinn (Lars Kaalund), the hotheaded, sexist proprietor of the hotel's sports bar, has harassed his customers too many times, and Jørgen is stuck with the task of firing him. These are our men.

Meanwhile, the women. Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen), the beautiful, Italian, raven-haired waitress in Halvfinn's bar, quits her own post in protest of his dismissal. Karen (Ann Eleanora Jørgensen), a beautiful, chestnut-maned hairstylist, is saddled with an elderly mother who is hateful and alcoholic and terminally ill. She feels too guilt-prone to accede to Mama's wishes that she end her pain through euthanasia. This daughterly ambivalence is mirrored by Olympia (Anette Støvelbaek), a beautiful, blonde space cadet whose shut-in father blames her for his wife's long-ago abandonment. Outside the household, Olympia works at a bakery, and her characterization rests largely on the fact that she drops things. Amazingly, thanks to the Italian comedy Bread and Tulips, Olympia is not the only film character in recent memory whose entire personality could be summed up as "Butterfingers." And sadly, due to generations of cinematic and narrative convention, the women of Italian for Beginners are hardly unique for being defined, chirpily, by their attachments to bosses and family. The reason we can tell Giulia, Karen, and Olympia apart is that they have different colored hair.

Bored by all the parental subplots? No problem: Scherfig kills off all the old-timers in less than an hour. The axe also falls on Marcello (Carlo Barsotti), after a single scene as the professor from whom Halvfinn, Jørgen, Andreas, Olympia, and three interchangeable ladies take a nighttime course in the Italian language. Presumably, the middle-aged women students should not resent the emptiness of their roles—especially compared to the romantic plotlines lavished on their middle-aged male counterparts—because, after all, the screenplay has permitted them to live.

It is virtually impossible to spoil the main plot of Italian for Beginners, which depends entirely on the audience's craving for the expected and the foreseen. The conjugal joinings are all quickly suggested, then obligatorily deferred (Halvfinn's haircuts keep getting interrupted, Jørgen's Italian is too stunted for Giulia to understand), then triumphantly achieved. Thankfully, this isn't a contemporary French film, so we need not worry that the denouement will be rendered as a carnal montage of you-are-there penetrative sex. Instead, the money shot in Italian for Beginners consists of a putatively "surprise" voyage to Italy, where all the loose ends get tied up, and Scherfig's search for punchlines leads her around corners, onto dinner tables, and even toward her own camera's focal apparatus. It is not that Italian for Beginners becomes a farce; the comedic tone is modest even when the jokes are obvious. There is nothing frenetic about the enterprise, which is wholly unobjectionable, wholly unpushy.

Am I wrong, though, that the joy of Italian for Beginners is expected to lie in its very commitment not to push us, to console an audience impatient with Dogme's shaky cameras and uncomfortable close-ups that Danes, too, can make weightless fluff? I am not arguing that romantic comedies are inherently weightless, but I do think they work most effectively when some contrapuntal element like the propulsive energy of a script (His Girl Friday), the submerged heartbreak beneath inventive, eccentric wit (Annie Hall), or the elaborate formal elegance of the mise-en-scène (Smiles of a Summer Night) allows the hilarity to exist within some context, so as to remind us—despite the prevailing codes of the genre—that bliss is not inevitable. In movies like Annie Hall, of course, bliss isn't inevitable at all.

By contrast to all this, Italian for Beginners comports itself as though the sheer act of watching one-dimensional characters fall into their slotted positions of bliss were pleasurable (which it can be, sometimes) and cinematically progressive (which is hard to imagine). Scherfig's tone is not self-important, exactly, but the movie seems designed to "prove" a point that needs no proving: that a maverick approach to filmmaking, for example, is fully capable of generating a product just as forgettable as what you find in the mainstream. The movie's almost obsessive casting-out of authority figures—the dead parents, the dead teacher, the displaced pastor, the nameless hotel boss—only reinforces the impression that Italian for Beginners is preoccupied with shunting older people, older ideas, older institutions out of the way. New space is cleared, but to what end? Attention, to reverse an old adage, need not be paid. C


Awards:
Berlin Film Festival: Silver Bear (Grand Jury Prize); FIPRESCI Prize; Prize of the Ecumenical Jury

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