Lonely hearts club
They shun special effects, makeup and artificial lighting. Instead, members of the Danish filmmakers collective Dogme 95 embrace the use of handheld cameras, organic sounds and music with Calvinistic fervor—all employed in their search for a “transcendental naturalism” that has usually surfaced in their films as earnest, urgent drama. The first female to work under the group’s Spartan tenets adds a new chapter to the group’s evolution and the proverbial Book of Love. With Italian for Beginners, writer-director Lone Scherfig triumphantly ventures where no Dogme 95 man has gone before: onto the tipsy lily pads of romantic comedy.
Scherfig has combined pseudo-documentary film techniques and an old-fashioned romantic roundelay into a sort of coarse, comic, feel-good melodrama. Her film plays like a Meg Ryan hug fest channeled through John Cassavetes with Ingmar Bergman undertones. The story begins rather slowly, and is punctuated with jerky camera movements and editing that—although tamer than most Dogme 95 films—may induce some viewers into wishing their popcorn were laced with Dramamine. Stick with it, though. The film is ripe with both infectious character and characters, and evolves into a tender love noodle that offsets contrived coincidence and on-the-sleeve sweetness with dry wit and earthy resonance.
The males in the story are a varied lot. Newly widowed, amiable minister Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen) arrives in Copenhagen to replace suspended pastor Wredmann (Bent Mejding). Andreas dispenses palatable advice to the walking wounded around him while Wredmann is embittered and running the church into the ground. Andreas is befriended by gentle, self-effacing hotel manager Jorgen Mortenson (Peter Gantzler), who is taking Italian lessons at an adult night school with Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund), a human time-bomb of sorts who runs the nearby sports bar and restaurant with a relentless belligerence.
The females they meet are single and all gravitate into the same Italian class. Shy, clumsy pastry store clerk Olympia (Anette Sovelbaek) lives with her curmudgeon father. Italian waitress Guila (Sara Indrio Jensen) is attracted to Jorgen—even after overhearing that he is suffering from a 4-year bout of impotency. And hairdresser Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen) is caring for her dying mother, who condemns Karen as a “nobody” who runs her fingers through strangers’ hair and dresses like a hooker.
Like Scherfig, the six lonely hearts at the core of the story are in search of a simple, intimate connection with the world. The characters are emotionally bruised and bloodied, with three losing family members and a fourth having been raised as an orphan. They cross paths in a journey about self-esteem, misunderstandings, mistakes, pain, loss and love that garners laughs not from the one-liners on which most American films rely for energy and diversion, but from a genuine warmth of spirit.
Italian for Beginners has a primitive video feel, but is far from tacky. One touching, memorable scene has the tears of hairdresser Karen falling on the face of a client to whom she is romantically attracted. A class trip to Venice magically captures the allure of the city. All the while, Scherfig juggles such serious issues as fetal alcohol syndrome, suicide, shaken religious faith, and euthanasia with generally bad hair days. She uses a “pure” form of cinema to explore the impurity of love, gives us multidimensional people (rather than stick figures) with real jobs, family and backgrounds, and pairs the euphoria of love with domestic responsibility.
Lars von Tiers (Breaking Waves, The Idiot), the cofounder and a spokesman for Dogme 95, said in a Film Comment article that, “The reason why I laid down the Dogma rules or put a camera on my shoulder was to get away from all this perfectionism and concentrate on something else.” For this ensemble piece, which is Scherfig’s third feature and first screenplay, that “something else” proves to be a generous serving of humanity topped with several wacky surprises.