Anders W. BerthelsenAnn Eleonora JorgensenLars KaalundSara Indrio Jensen
Italian For Beginners
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Writer/director: Lone Scherfig
Writer: Maeve Binchy [writer of the novel that they plagiarised]
Keywords: Dogme 95, comedy, low-budget
Language: Danish, Italian
Country: Denmark, Sweden
Actor: Anders W. Berthelsen, Anette Stovelbaek, Ann Eleonora Jorgensen, Peter Gantzler, Lars Kaalund, Sara Indrio Jensen, Karen-Lise Mynster, Rikke Wolck, Elsebeth Steentoft, Bent Mejding, Lene Tiemroth, Claus Gerving, Jesper Christensen, Merete Voldstedlund, Henning Jensen, Carlo Barsotti, Matteo Valese
Format: 118 minutes
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 20 July 2011
It's a Dogme 95 film, also known as Dogme XII. However unusually for a Dogme film, it's not grim and in-your-face but instead a romantic comedy.
Bizarrely it's also the most profitable film in Scandinavian history. I suppose you're guaranteed to get an astronomical return on your investment when your budget was only 600,000 dollars and yet you run for six months in American cinemas, not to mention also playing in Britain, Spain, Italy, France, Germany and (of course) Denmark.
You'll have heard of Dogme 95, but for now I'll pretend you haven't. It's the 1995 film-making manifesto of two Danish directors, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, who drew up ten rules they call the "Vow of Chastity". The idea is to free cinema from the tyranny of Hollywood-scale budgets. To qualify as Dogme, your film must be shot with hand-held Academy 35 mm cameras in natural light, with no sets and no props that weren't already at the location before you arrived. There will be no sound effects or incidental music. It can't be a genre movie, it can't have "superficial action" (e.g. murders, weapons) and it must be set in the place and time where you're shooting it. Finally, the director must not be credited.
I like this. It sounds interesting. Admittedly people often associate Dogme with Las von Trier and thus think "pretentious tosser", but in fact there are lots of Dogme movies. Anyone can make one. Here's a list just of those from 2000:
1. Italian for Beginners (Danish)
2. Once Upon Another Time (Spanish)
3. Bad Actors (American)
4. La chambre des magiciennes (French, TV movie)
5. The King Is Alive (Sweden, Denmark and USA)
6. Interview (Korea)
7. Cabin Fever (Norwegian)
8. Fuckland (Argentina)
9. Camera (not the Cronenberg one)
That much I sort of knew. However for a while this film gave me the impression that Dogme also meant you couldn't have a script. It didn't feel like the work of professionals. It looked terrible, the editing was ugly and I wasn't getting any sense of narrative. The actors were good, but I appeared to be watching them in an improvised story, like a Mike Leigh film.
In the end I changed my mind, but it took me a good while to do so. I was halfway through when I finally decided that this was after all a good film. Eventually though I really liked it and would even go so far as to recommend it, but with the caveat that you'll need patience to get through the first act.
Despite first impressions, you see, there is indeed a script. It's even a good one. The writer-director Lone Scherfig has said that writing a Dogme film has a strong positive effect, because its limitations force you to work harder and be more creative about your storytelling. Curiously enough, this creativity appears to have stretched to plagiarising an Irish novel, Maeve Binchy's novel "Evening Class". They didn't make any payments to the author and even failed to tell her that they'd made a movie based on her work, but fortunately in due course her representatives noticed and raised the matter. Compensation was paid and Binchy's name added to the credits.
That's nothing to do with the film itself, though. There are six main characters, three men and three women. All are single and some recently bereaved. I wouldn't want to give away plot spoilers, but there's a possibility that romantic connections might be established. There are a million films like that. What's special this time is that the Dogme style strips away artifice, so it feels more honest and documentary-style than you'd get with Hollywood production values and a cast of teenaged bimbos. This gives it charm. The main characters are:
1. Anders W. Berthelsen as a priest and my favourite character in the film. The whole cast is strong, but I most enjoyed watching him. His wife recently died, but he's getting on with his life. Berthelsen is lovely enough in the role to make me want to watch more of his films, always being subtle, straightforward and sweet.
2. Peter Gantzler is a rather socially inept, boring guy who works at a restaurant. (Did I mention that this wasn't a Hollywood film?) He's middle-aged, or not far off, not to mention impotent. He hasn't had sex in four years. However he's also a nice guy who always means well and stands by his friend...
3. ...Lars Kaalund, who has something not unlike Tourette's. He's got a brain, he's cool and he pays attention to detail, but unfortunately he'll be wildly abusive at random to anyone at all. You might be a stranger, a lover or even a paying customer. He doesn't discriminate. It's a miracle that his restaurant is still going.
4. Anette Stovelbaek is a clumsy, insipid blonde who's bad at pretty much everything and knows it.
5. Ann Eleonora Jorgensen is a hairdresser with the mother from hell, although even she's possibly not as bad as Stovelbaek's father. You'd have to think about that one. Jorgensen's also very attractive.
6. Sara Indrio Jensen is an Italian waitress and the one cast member who's young and beautiful. However she also has a language barrier and thus feels she can't chase the man she's attracted to. All she can do is wait for him to make a move. She's the film's funniest character, although don't get too carried away by that description. You'll be near the end before it even occurs to you that the film might be meant to be a comedy.
The title refers to an Italian language class, although that's more of a framework for the story than anything else. There are various reasons for attending. Gantlzer wouldn't have chosen to go and is bad at languages, for instance, but he's supporting his friend. It felt to me like a mirror image of Berthelsen's church services, e.g. the dangerously low attendance, the loss of the original person in charge, except that Danish church services to me are eye-popping. You wouldn't believe their outfits. It's 17th century Puritan. Seriously, they could have stepped off the Mayflower. I loved those two ladies in the congregation, but Berthelsen is the stark black-and-white equivalent of King Charles II. He's got a ruff, like Blackadder.
If you're prepared to give it time, there's a lot to like here. The first really good scene, for me, was that little old lady talking about her past life of crime. It's just a little moment that doesn't go anywhere, but it's a strong speech in the hands of a strong actress. After that, the movie just keeps getting better. You get to know the characters and the story slowly weaves itself into being around them. It's sweet. I can see why it was a hit.
The closing credits are written on cards that get thrown in front of the camera, by the way. That's Dogme for you. Oh, and Lars von Trier was unhappy about this being a romantic comedy with a normal ending, but Scherfig insisted.