Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Italian for Beginners is a delightful (yes, I've been using that word a lot lately)
romantic soap opera. Provided the viewer is not allergic to its Dogme 95 style, it is the
perfect date movie. Its content is much the same
"when-will-the-nice-people-pair-off?" journey as any other show, but here the fresh faces and charming
observations about life and love are especially contagious.
Minor changes in a small Danish community create big changes in the lives of two-score
acquaintences. A replacement pastor, Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen) copes with his troublesome
predecessor, and a series of inopportune funerals that remind him of his recent wife's death.
Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund) is on the verge of losing
his job for his atrocious manners and foolish disrespect for people. Meek hotel man Jorgen Mortensen
can't bring himself to approach the woman he loves, because he's intimidated by fear of impotence.
Clumsy pastry clerk Olympia (Anette Stovelboek) and emotionally-vulnerable Karen (Ann Eleonora
Jorgensen), both caretakers to their parents, find they have something in common when both relatives
die in a short span of time. And non-Danish speaking Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen) prays for help
because she can't even talk to her dream man. The relationships all come together in a night-school
Italian language class ...
First, what makes Italian for Beginners so delightful, when what passes for romance in most
modern American movies leaves Savant cold? It's commercialism. Movie stars are pretty, but the
magic of investing one's heart in worrying about whether Nicolas Cage or Leonardo DiCaprio or (name
two hot female stars) are going to get together just doesn't happen for me. First, the overpackaging of
romantic teams is disgusting, with supermart tabloids and television news primed to promote
whatever fantasies can be sold: Were there really sparks between the stars? Is the famous
actor-husband jealous? American movie stars have too much money riding on their images to risk
subordinating themselves to real roles in any but the highest-profile pictures. Actors in independent
films may hit the mark, but again, when anybody really succeeds there, they move up to star status, or
start pretending they've ascended. It may be snobbery against the Hollywood game, but I'm not inclined
to invest my movie fantasies in the mainstream money machine.
This is probably unfair to American product, because it's possible that all the actors in
Italian for Beginners are well-known to Danish audiences. But the overall effect can't be
the same. I'll make the wild guess that none of these Danes command the kind of salaries seen in Hollywood,
and none has left an IMDB trail longer than a few years. We react to them as if they were the people at
the next table in a coffee shop. 1
Second, much has been made of the Dogme 95 trappings. A clever attention-getting idea started by some
Danish filmmakers, Dogme 95 is a little set of rules that gives a film distinction for
eschewing glitz and technical polish, and concentrating instead on stories and performances scaled
down to human dimensions. The general idea is a kind of techno-asceticism that believes that movies have
become debased by what are normally called production values: opticals, special
effects, music scores. Some productions follow the rules more than others, but Italian for Beginners
comes pretty close to full compliance. In Italian for Beginners, I only noticed an un-sourced piano
clinking out an opera aria
over the first shot in Venice. The film plays rather cutely, even with its end credits (there are no
titles) written on scraps of paper, which are tossed one after another in front of the
camera. There's even a little hand-drawn Dolby logo!
The fact is that if the performances in Italian for Beginners were filmed in Imax or
70mm, the emotional effect would be the same, only the film would be prettier. I agree with the music
idea for this particular film, as a score telling me how to react to scenes, instead of making me
work to read the character's reactions, is Savant's main gripe with overproduced movies. The
asceticism does get the movie down to the human level. We saw this one in the theater (another date
picture that Savant went to grudgingly, and then fell in love with) and the audience ate it up.
The style is not cinema verité, and even though most of the filming is hand-held, the camera doesn't
jerk around spasmodically. There are real angles and points of view, and the show is indeed directed
by someone with an eye to drama. Savant responded well to all the characters, who seemed true to
themselves almost all of the time. Hal-Finn is relentlessly boorish and Jorgen Mortensen
a bit tiresomely unprepossessing, but they both work because we all know people just like them. The
story is somewhat idealized, as the characters actually have rather finite barriers to overcome to
find happiness. What matters is that we recognize their problems as intelligent, real, and
universal - most of us share two or three of them. It's a fantasy of course, that all the characters
attractive and their destinies therefore a tad more hopeful than most. But hey, it's surely more
pleasant than being asked to be concerned about a serial killer or some elfish twenty-somethings with
Savant's getting pretty used to seeing pleated Rembrandt-style round collars in Danish movies, as
pastors seem to be in all I've seen this side of Lars von Trier:
Ordet. The Danes are so religiously soulful in
these movies that it's nice to hear the hairdresser in this film stumble over the right way to
talk to the new pastor in town. Italian for Beginners really isn't about an Italian class,
but a philosopy of thoughtful living. And even with the film's occasional contrivances, it's hard
not to be won over. It's not 'cute', like Amelie, but it certainly works less to achieve
its romantic result.
Readers already smitten by this show might consider giving an unrelated book a read. It's so close
in basic tone, when I read it I thought this movie had to have been inspired by it. It's called
Evening Class, by Maeve Binchy, and it covers much the same ground, with some similar
characters. Their problems have a little more grit, but much the same payoff. Italy remains the
romantic Neverland for northerners, in this case, the Irish. The book stresses what Italian
for Beginners doesn't quite communicate, that adult language classes are fantastic places
to meet nice people, and if you're so inclined, to transform yourself into a human being again. In
a language class, there are no strangers, and everyone is reduced to the
same level of communication. When the class clicks, everybody blooms. It's like a place where
everyone around you knows the real you. You can be open and friendly to anybody
you wish, and the unattached people stand out very quickly. For many years I've recommended
language classes to all my friends who grouse about having no way to meet potential girlfriends ...
and although nobody's taken me up on it, I'm convinced it's the answer. Ah, wisdom.
The picture is rated "R", just for a few swear words and the beginnings of a 'get it on' scene.
Miramax's DVD of Italian for Beginners is very plainwrap, and lacks a trailer or any explanation
of the film or Dogme 95 that might help out with newbies. In theaters, the film played in a
pale-colored flat 1:55 print. In actuality, it was shot on the BetaSP format. Those who saw it
on a screen, transferred to film with a film-look conversion, may be taken aback at first, or think
they've gotten the wrong disc. On DVD the show is the original video, which looks better but of
course has a whole different feel to it. The first few scenes are jumpy and a bit cramped-looking,
but very quickly the television soap feel dies out and the basic drama takes over.
Writing package copy for a movie as special as this would be no easy task, but the pap on the package-back
doesn't begin to convey anything about the film: "... an education that will change everything
they know about love!" Phffft.
Is this the right time to again say bad things about Miramax? Italian for Beginners is listed
as running 118 or 112 minutes originally, depending on what European country it was shown in. Miramax
has again decided to 'help' us by trimming 19 minutes from the film! Now, push come to shove, if it
were my money invested in the picture, I'd see the logic if I were convinced that cutting would increase
the chances of the picture being a success here in the States. But not reverting to the original full-length
show for video release
is plain stupid. I can add Italian for Beginners to the list of Miramax movies (Like Water
for Chocolate, Amelie) that I need to see in versions before the Weinsteins' grubby hands
got a hold of them. Maybe Dogme '02 should include a codicil - no moronic distributor tampering.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Italian for Beginners rates:
Video: Very good
Supplements: Zilchorama, unless you like 'other romantic suggestions from Miramax'
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 11, 2002
1. ... although Bent Mejding, the old pastor, had the role of the
dauntless blonde hero of the Danish Reptilicus forty years earlier. What a world!
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2002 Glenn Erickson
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