Published Sep 01, 2001
The last thing most people would expect from a film produced under the auspices of the Dogme 95 manifesto famously penned by Lars von Trier and associates would be a romantic comedy. "Italian for Beginners" has gently mordant humour and an abundance of dysfunctional family relationships and damaged personalities, but otherwise has little of the austerity, scabrous humour and general eagerness to offend that has marked so many of the Dogme films to date.
There's not a whole lot that one needs to tell about the film's narrative arc: a recently widowed pastor arrives in a Danish community in which a number of lonely, variously misfit souls desperate for companionship drift together through an ad hoc Italian class offered at a community centre. There are a couple of Dickensian kind of coincidences, but that's really the closest director Lone Scherfig comes to violating Dogme's tenets. Indeed, the fact that "Italian for Beginners" is a feel-good, light comedy bespeaks less a break from the Dogme aesthetic as its growing maturity. Dogme directors approach filmmaking ascetically, but only by studio standards. They vow to use only handheld cameras and natural light and sound, but what's really becoming clear with a film like "Italian for Beginners" is the renewed confidence in the fundamentals of filmmaking, namely story, dialogue and character.
The real romance in the film might just be for those basic elements; Scherfig has made a film that feels richer than any number of kazillion-dollar epics through under-statedly clever dialogue, easily recognisable situations and economically but sharply drawn characters. Turns out that's all you need, and I'd defy you to name five films produced by a Hollywood studio in the past six months that match its wit, homey whimsy and charm.