Italiensk for begyndere (Italian for Beginners)

Directed by Lone Scherfig (uncredited as per The Dogme95 Vow of Chastity)
Starring: Anders W. Berthelsen, Anette Støvelbæk, Peter Gantzler, Ann Eleonora Jørgensen, Lars Kaalund, Sara Indrio Jensen.
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexuality.

Review by Matt Heffernan <matt@filmhead.com>
March 14, 2002

Those Danish film mavericks have been busy. The twelfth film from the Dogme95 movement has arrived on American shores, and has brought with it more insights into how a film can be made without traditional production enhancements -- like, say, lighting or props. Lone Scherfig's Italian for Beginners depends on a witty screenplay and creative location work to make a very entertaining film and still stick to the principals of "chaste" filmmaking.

In the Hvidovre section of Copenhagen, several lives intertwine at a community center night class. The title of the class is, of course, Italian for Beginners. The new pastor in town, Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen), is brought to the class by a woman who works at the church. At his first class, he meets Halvfinn (Lars Kaalund), who is also a waiter at the hotel Andreas is staying at. With Halvfinn is his friend, Jørgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler), another employee at the hotel who is supposed to fire Halvfinn for his gross incompetence and abusiveness towards the patrons, but doesn't have the heart. Also in her first class is Olympia (Anette Støvelbæk), a pastry shop clerk who spends most of her pay on the merchandise she drops.

Within one week, three deaths bring them even closer together. First, the class instructor has a heart attack at the beginning of that class and dies soon afterward. Then Olympia goes home to find her father dead. Soon after that, she discovers that her estranged mother is dead. It turns out that she has a long lost sister, Karen (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen), who happens to be a hair cutter who often gets referrals from the aforementioned hotel. Andreas had his hair cut by her, and Halvfinn has tried, but either they end up making out or she gets called away. She becomes close with Olympia, and they start going to the Italian class together, but there is nobody to teach it. Luckily, Halvfinn is only there to accompany Jørgen so that he can find a woman. He already speaks Italian and starts teaching the class himself. Ironically, the one woman interested in Jørgen is Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen), who only speaks Italian.

As you can see, it's very complicated, but Scherfig pulls it off with ease, making the kind of comedy that Robert Altman wishes he could still make. He even gets around the strict Dogme rules by using many different locations within Hvidovre, and eventually getting everybody to go to Venice, the most photogenic city in Europe (not to say that Copenhagen isn't lovely in its own right, but I don't think anybody will disagree with Venice's edge).

With its more than fair share of tragedy and turmoil, Italian for Beginners is a little more dark than most American romantic comedies, but so far it has been received well here. It has a nicely packaged ending and an attractive Nordic cast, so perhaps it's not that surprising.

More Dogme films are to come, and not just from Denmark. This is the fifth "Danish Dogme", and two more are already certified. There are now 25 official Dogme films, and the last three were actually American. Let's hope that the rest of the world can keep the same high standards in low-budget filmmaking.


For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Italiensk for begyndere (2000)


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Review © 2002 Matt Heffernan