Daring enough to embrace genre within a movement that despised it, Italian for Beginners ingrains tangible suffering into the American romantic comedy model, balancing the schmaltz of contemporary coupling with an analytical approach to religion, death and alienation. By inserting femininity and whimsy into the claustral doctrine of Dogme 95’s manifesto, Lone Scherfig bridges the gap between the stoic nature of Danish culture and the progressive sexuality of the 21st Century, revealing the intimacy, honesty and faith at the heart of the modern courtship ritual.
Appointing community as the focal point for a sophisticated soap opera, Scherfig unites her solitary souls in a sparsely-populated Italian class, treating each lesson as a symbolic rebirth in the wake of unbearable tragedy. Beneath each character’s sorrowful yearnings and libidinous urges lies the absence of God, personified by a parish without a pastor and an interim priest (Anders W. Berthelsen) in mourning for his late wife. The bitter words of his atheistic predecessor echo throughout the film and torment his spirit, but, through a bout of intraclass infatuation, his conviction grows and he ventures to prove that God is more than “an abstraction.”
Additional existential threads are woven into this blend of ardor and turmoil, broaching topics as varied as alcoholism and mental illness, building psychic bonds through a shared grief and the proximity of location. Unfortunately, this lack of space contaminates the photography, resulting in tight close-ups and rapid edits that muddle the content of the dialogue, leaving the eye too distracted for the ear to actively listen.
The severity of style also hinders Scherfig’s humorous notions, smothering each pratfall and witty bit of banter in unnecessary formality and inexpressive set dressing. However, the drab decor and bounty of stern glances does benefit the dramatic tone, falling in line with Dogme’s ambitions by showing the veracity in simple gesture and vigorous physicality. As the artifice of its premise wears off, the fidelity of these images takes on a humanistic tenderness and harnesses the film to reality, forgiving the neat conveniences sprinkled throughout the script.
Aside from its convoluted passages, Lone Scherfig utilizes the familiarity built into her source material to dig to subcutaneous emotional levels. By allowing the desperation of her characters to speak for humanity on a grand scale, Scherfig dragged the fantasy of romantic passion into real life, paralleling religion and love through a wellspring of hope and the abandonment of self.
Italian for Beginners (Miramax Films, 2000)
Directed by Lone Scherfig
Written by Maeve Binchy (based on her book “Evening Class”) and Lone Scherfig (screenplay)
Photographed by Jørgen Johansson