Combustible Celluloid
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With: Anders W. Berthelsen, Ann Eleonora Jorgensen, Anette Stovelbaek, Peter Gantzler, Lars Kaalund, Sara Indrio Jensen, Elsebeth Steentoft, Rikke Wolck, Karen-Lise Mynster, Bent Mejding, Lene Tiemroth, Jesper Christensen, Claus Gerving, Carlo Barsotti, Alex Nyborg Madsen, Steen Svare
Written by: Lone Scherfig
Directed by: Lone Scherfig
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexuality
Language: Danish & Italian, with English subtitles
Running Time: 112
Date: 01/18/2002

Italian for Beginners (2000)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Love 'Italian' Style

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Most Dogme 95 films (The Celebration, The Idiots, Mifune, The King Is Alive) seem to ooze suffering and misery as an unwritten part of their fabled list of rules. But the new Italian for Beginners (Denmark's official entry for Oscar consideration) feels warm and sweet and slightly bruised, just like one of the pastries poor Olympia (Anette Stovelbaek) constantly drops on the floor of the bakery where she works.

Directed by Lone Scherfig, Italian for Beginners follows six interesting, genuine and funny characters looking for love in modern-day Copenhagen.

A minister named Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen) temporarily fills in for an older, bile-filled one who has been suspended for taking out his anger on his congregation. Andreas recently has lost his wife and still wanders through his days carrying a heavy sadness. Interestingly, though Andreas seems nervous about giving sermons, we never actually see him in the act.

A belligerent restaurant manager named Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund) continually badgers his patrons, mostly athletes and sports fans. A beautiful Italian cook named Guila (Sara Indrio Jensen) works faithfully for him, come what may (when he gets fired, she quits). She's in love with Finn's friend, a hotel manager named Jorgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler). It so happens that Andreas the minister lives in Jorgen's hotel.

Finn goes to get his hair cut by Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen) a lovely hairdresser who constantly tends to her sick mother. In one of the movie's biggest surprises, we learn about Karen's connection to the aforementioned Olympia, who lives with and cares for her constantly-complaining father.

The six characters attend -- and are further connected by -- an Italian language class. The randy old teacher dies of a heart attack, and Finn ends up taking over. He and Karen begin a rocky relationship, damaged temporarily by his big mouth. Olympia falls head over heels for Andreas, but she's so klutzy and wears her damaged heart on her sleeve that she's afraid to make a move. And Guila prays to the Virgin Mary to make shy former soccer player Jorgen like her, which is not hard. Their only hurdle is that neither speaks the other's language.

Following the 10 Dogme rules, known collectively as the Vow of Chastity (see the official Dogme 95 website), director Lone Scherfig manages lovely little quiet moments for all the characters, giving them their own genuine anxieties and moments of purity. (Also in keeping with the rules, Scherfig does not take an official directing credit.)

My favorite character was Olympia, whose clumsiness at first feels like a gimmick, until the movie offers a logical and quite tragic explanation. The lovely blond actress Stovelbaek plays the role expertly, allowing her eyes to reflect all her uncertainty. When she confesses to Andreas that she's held 44 jobs and was fired from each one after just a few months due to her ineptitude, she really sells the idea. She moves the character beyond pity into something more legitimate.

Nevertheless, high art this ain't. It's basically a rich, American-style romantic comedy multiplied by three but stripped of anything gratuitous -- like car chases or Starbucks coffee cups -- that the Dogme vow automatically forbids. Nora Ephron's films should be this enchanting.

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