Stumbling into love
The Danish Italian for Beginners is a freewheeling, tragicomic delight
Lone Scherfig’s Italian for Beginners is a charmingly brash romantic comedy from Denmark and the Dogme 95 group. It’s the least experimental and most accessible of the Dogme 95 films so far but distinguishes itself all the same by way of daring mixtures of conventional romance, sex farce and stinging tragicomedy.
The lovers in Scherfig’s tale are youngish small-town characters who occasionally come together in a night class on conversational Italian. Each of them is a likeable sort with some kind of blatant character flaw, and with their lives intersecting in a variety of ways, they move toward each other with an awkwardness that proves surprisingly charming.
Halfvinn the bartender is chronically tactless, but Karen the lonely hairdresser finds him irresistible just the same. Jorgen, an assistant hotel manager, can’t bring himself to fire Halfvinn and can’t believe that the Italian waitress at the sports bar has her eye on him. Andreas the interim pastor and young widower has a knack for saying the right thing at the wrong time but gets pleasantly entangled with blonde Olympia, who is always dropping things at the bakery.
Scherfig has an attractive set of actors playing these error-prone characters, and she presents their mishaps and amours in rowdy, quasi-anarchic fashion. The cinematography has the nervous, rambling look of a Cassavetes film, and Scherfig uses that edginess and a pattern of coincidental sorrows as a counterpoint to the cheerful conventionality in the romantic plotting.
As such, this Danish delight is both arbitrary and freewheeling. Its seemingly predictable love stories are so deeply shadowed by death and failure that they also become unpredictable in their pathos.