There is death all around in “Italian for Beginners.” It’s at the periphery, mostly — main characters’ parents or spouses die, not the main characters themselves — but it’s there, affecting everyone, influencing their behavior, changing their attitudes.
And yet, this is primarily a comedy, and a sweet, happy one at that. One of the sweetest, happiest movies I’ve seen, in fact. It’s a Dogme film — meaning it was shot without any special effects, camera tricks or artificial lighting — and it’s one of the few such films where the minimalism doesn’t become the focus. It is a story well-served by a no-frills attitude.
To Copenhagen comes Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen), a recent widower who is filling in for Rev. Wredmann (Bent Mejding), who was suspended apparently for being obnoxious and weird. (I, for one, would have enjoyed seeing more of the strange Reverend, as he is very funny.)
At the hotel where he is staying, Andreas meets some locals. Jorgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler) — who is rarely Jorgen or Mr. Mortensen, but always “Jorgen Mortensen” — is impotent and sad and in love with a lovely Italian waitress named Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen). His best friend is Halvfinn (Lars Kaalund), an impertinent young fellow whom Jorgen Mortensen has been instructed to fire. (“Don’t put the teaspoon on the tablecloth, you pig!” Halvfinn yells at a customer in the hotel restaurant.)
Halvfinn, meanwhile, is entranced by Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen), a hairstylist with a small salon and a dying mother. And a clumsy bakery employee named Olympia (Anette Stovelbaek), whose father has just died, is here, too, for Andreas to fall in love with.
Several of these characters know each other because they attend the same Italian class at the community center. When the instructor dies (I wasn’t kidding about the death thing here), Halvfinn — the only one fluent in Italian — takes over.
Italian is often synonymous with love, and the ideas are interchangeable in the title: These people are novices in love as much as they are in speaking Italian. They are ordinary people fumbling through life and trying to connect to each other. The film’s director, Lone Scherfig, said that while most American movies make the audience want to be the characters, “Italian for Beginners” is the opposite: “These characters, they want to be you.”
This is an astute observation. We sympathize with everyone — from Olympia’s haplessness to Halvfinn’s defensive rudeness — but we don’t pity them. In fact, there’s much to admire in the way they muddle around, earnestly trying to find happiness — and in the way they succeed.
A- (; )