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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 5.26%
Average: 42.11%
Pretty Bad: 5.26%
Total Crap: 0%

2 reviews, 7 user ratings

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Italian for Beginners
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by Andrew Howe

"A film for those long winter nights"
3 stars

Filmmakers who subscribe to the Dogme charter can’t entertain us with big-budget eye candy, so it’s no surprise that Italian for Beginners is a typical relationship-oriented independent film. Charting the lives and loves of six world-weary souls, the winter gloom that inhabits their troubled hearts initially repels any attempt to become invested in their lives. However, their melancholic resignation is tempered by a script that’s determined to lead them to the light, and if you can take the measured pace you’ll be rewarded with a second half that manages to be life-affirming without crossing the line into sentimental wish-fulfilment.

The film is set in a Danish town where the inclement weather mirrors the emotional state of Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen), a pastor who follows the cries of the faithful to a church far from home. The loss of his wife has left him perpetually subdued, but a quick inventory of his new flock reveals that he’s in good company. Jørgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler) is a likeable fellow eking out a living in the hospitality industry, but loneliness-fuelled self-doubt blinds him to the attraction he holds for Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen), an Italian waitress blessed with an overdeveloped sense of romanticism. He provides a direct contrast to his friend Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund), whose obnoxious and confrontational personality marks him as a perennial loner (not to mention a truly rotten café manager). Keeping your own counsel is preferable to the fate that’s befallen Karen (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen) and Olympia (Anette Støvelbæk), however, since they spend their leisure time dealing with a mentally unstable mother and father respectively.

This kind of set-up doesn’t leave much room for glad tidings, and the first half of the film is a monumentally depressing exercise. However, our interest is maintained by likeable performances from Berthelsen and Gantzler, who leave you wishing you could step through the screen to offer a few consoling words of your own, and Hal-Finn’s constant outbursts which, while embarrassing, provide an enlivening counterpoint to Karen and Olympia’s infuriating stoicism.

Writer/director Lone Scherfig’s script finds room for one exceedingly unlikely coincidence, but most of the time she plays it straight. There are no histrionics on this particular journey, only an oppressive sense of life quietly passing the protagonists by. The interactions between the characters are initially restrained, but over time the ice begins to thaw, culminating in a wonderful sequence in Venice that leaves you feeling like someone who’s emerged from an extended period of darkness into the warmth of the morning sun.

The film’s full title includes the words “… and Love for Losers”, but it’s obviously meant in an affectionate sense. Most of the characters are victims of circumstance, with debilitating personality flaws and inadequate support networks thrown in for good measure, and Scherfig’s on hand to remind us that happiness doesn’t necessarily favour those who help themselves. The script is infused with the notion that you can’t lose ‘em all – circumstances reverse, flaws are accepted, and fate’s mysterious ways provide all the support we need. It’s by no means a warm blanket philosophy (at least in the manner it’s presented here), and makes a refreshing change from the notion that motivation for change, leaving our comfort zone and other behavioural-therapist favourites are the only ways to combat quiet desperation.

The funereal atmosphere of the first hour and leisurely narrative make it difficult to recommend the film to casual viewers, but it’s an involving effort that rewards the commitment of anyone who can last the distance. I still haven’t bought into the Dogme philosophy, but as long as its adherents continue to exercise this brand of thoughtful, intelligent filmmaking the movement is in safe hands.

Postscript: Australia has been blessed with a 98 minute print, which is a full 15 minutes shorter than the international version. The absence of jarring transitions suggests the cuts were skilfully made, but it’s impossible to jettison fifteen percent of the running time without losing something, and anything that served to further develop the characters would have been more than welcome. I’d like to think there was a good reason for the butchery, but that’s probably just wishful thinking.

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originally posted: 06/06/02 18:37:45
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User Comments

6/09/05 ana light and funny, good twists to the story, an interweaving of charcters' lives 3 stars
7/07/03 Kent Sorry - couldn't sympathize with characters, lighting was an issue and ending was trite. 2 stars
6/21/03 Sebastian E. Great movie! 5 stars
9/26/02 Barbora Great movie, great actors - I especially like Anders Berthelsen. 5 stars
6/25/02 Black Beauty Sentimental but in a good way 3 stars
5/12/02 Teresa The characters dragged me in. A love story. Easy to follow. 4 stars
3/07/02 Reini Urban At first I had to laugh where everybody cried, then reverse. 5 stars
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  18-Jan-2002 (R)



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