ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS (Lone Scherfig, 2000)

I have now seen a handful of Dogme 95 films, and to varying degrees I have enjoyed every one of them. How could I be other than a champion of the movement then, the most critically important, and the most widely discussed, in recent cinema? Goodness knows how. I reject some of its premises. I have even speculated that Lars von Trier was indulging in an impish put-on when he helped found the movement, for he has so deviated from the rules he helped devise and “swore” to follow that two of his major works post-1995, Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000), have failed to be certified as Dogme 95 films. Let me remind you that the latter won the world’s most prestigious film prize, the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

The collective begun in Copenhagen in 1995 now includes, in addition to Danes, artists in Argentina, Belgium, France, Italy, Norway, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States. To battle the falsifying tendencies of individual and technologically obsessive cinema, as well as the “democratization of the cinema” that camcorders and other means of making films more widely accessible than in the past have ushered in, Dogme 95 films “must [be] put . . . into uniform.” This garb takes the form of rules supporting naturalism and realism rather than artifice or technical manipulation. For example, location shooting is in, studio shooting, out; films, which must be in color and video recorded, can use no special lighting apart from a single lamp attached to the camera, nor can filters be used, nor can optical work of any kind be applied; no sound can be used apart from the sounds that correspond to the images being presented; the camera must be hand-held; the action must be contemporary. Another part of this “vow of chastity” 95 Dogme participants take is that the filmmaker will not be credited. Their sole aim in making a film must be “to force the truth out of [the] characters and settings.” (Substitute discover for force and in for out of, and we have then a central part of the Romantic credo.)

Clearly, Dogme 95 films are meant to oppose the current films emanating from Hollywood, as perhaps the prohibition against introducing elements of murder and other forms of violence makes especially clear. (As you can see, von Trier’s current trilogy, which the 2003 Dogville launched, is most un-Dogmetic on many fronts.) However, their ideological protest reaches back further. Its manifesto a response to the one in the 1950s in France launching the nouvelle vague, Dogme 95 quarrels also with that earlier movement, which it criticizes for its “bourgeoisie romanticism.” The French New Wave indeed represented a Romantic revival, in opposition to the neoclassicism of the “Tradition of Quality” in French cinema, those heavily literary adaptations that supported the status quo. (One of the motives of the nouvelle vague was to take cinema out of the studio and on location and into the open air—a return to Renoir’s inspiration during his Communist period in the 1930s.) Romanticism is indeed bourgeois at root. So, by the way, is Marxism. That is often the historical way of radical protest and revolutionary movements; they take aim at those elements in their own society or culture that stifle, among other things, comradery and free expression. But Dogme 95 is skirting foolishness even remotely to suggest that the nouvelle vague was other than a Leftist, radical, and indeed in many ways revolutionary movement. One suspects that the real bone of contention is that the French New Wave proclaimed American cinema—particularly genre cinema (westerns, crime thrillers, screwball comedies), which Dogme 95 singles out for condemnation—as a source of inspiration, however non-homegrown. For the record, the French New Wave inspired similar movements, tailored to fit the nations involved, in West Germany, England, Japan, Czechoslovakia, and the United States.

The quasi-militaristic or monastic discipline that Dogme 95 enforces on its artists (and hence, indirectly, on its audiences) is repugnant to me, but what can I do?: I regard von Trier’s The Idiots (1998) as one of cinema’s most compelling and witheringly brilliant social satires. I also admire Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (1998), Søren Kragh-Jacobsen’s Mifune (1999), and Harmony Korine’s julien donkey-boy (1999), the last of this list being the first American film subscribing to the Dogme 95 manifesto.

Italian for Beginners (Italiensk for begyndere), from Denmark, represents another “first”; it is the first Dogme 95 release to have been made by a woman. One anticipates, as it were, a loosening of the military collar. This in fact is what the Dogmetically uncredited Lone Scherfig delivers. Scherfig wrote and directed this marvelously fresh comedy, which one could describe as Shakespearean, or Rohmeresque without Eric Rohmer’s underpinnings of dogma and destiny. In the film’s last movement, members of a community Italian language class in a suburban Danish town travel as a group to Venice. Love’s impediments gradually fall by the wayside; couples come together. Visually, the same thing occurs as does in von Trier’s The Idiots: the hand-held camera used throughout, so generally mannered and even irritating in its American use, here seems a light-sensitive extension of the filmmaker’s eye and cameraman’s hand. This visual aspect is of a piece with Scherfig’s palpably breathing warmth and her alertness to human behavior and motive. Scherfig doesn’t seem to be “[forcing] the truth out of [the] characters and settings.” She really does seem to be discovering this instead, and one gauge of the film’s emotional richness is how often the film is at one and the same time very sad and very funny, or anxiously embarrassing and utterly liberating. Scherfig juggles a number of delightful coincidences and contrivances to concoct a captivating comedy of life, one that achieves a purely joyous consummation in Italy. Expect to feel fully human for a change at a Dogme 95 film.

Like Shakespearean comedy, Italian for Beginners begins by being potentially tragic. Its beginnings and underpinnings are steeped in loss: a lonely minister who is achingly grieving the death of his schizophrenic wife temporarily (and later perhaps permanently) replaces at the head of his congregation another minister grieving the loss of his wife, which in this case has brought about a loss of faith; an Italian instructor collapses in the classroom and soon after dies at hospital; a man loses his job at a restaurant; his best friend has lost his confidence with women through long inactivity; a bakery clerk’s father dies before they can readjust the rancor between them; another woman, a barber, loses her mother to pancreatic cancer after she, unable to bear this dying woman’s enormous pain, increases her mother’s dose of morphine at hospital. This catalog of woes develops the pace of the comedy; each new misfortune, (except perhaps for the job loss) heartbreaking in itself, also becomes funny as yet another calamity. Oh no, one thinks, and not knowing which to do (or which to do first), one finds oneself both laughing and crying.

However, a shift is afoot; pure comedy and romance will emerge from this tangle of human troubles. Lost will turn into found. For instance, the bakery clerk and the barber discover they are sisters! And there is an inheritance! The man out of a job takes over the Italian language class! A sweet, young Italian chef prays daily that that nice man, the faux-impotent one, will come to her with a marriage proposal in hand, for she harbors a secret passion for him. And in this film, let me tell you, God listens and delivers! Even the minister is handsomely wooing the hilariously clumsy bakery clerk.

Scherfig’s video shoot has been transferred to film with some unpleasant results. Visual tones are wildly uneven; at times the already grainy images dissolve into a sea of dots. In Venice, everything smooths out into a lushness of blue sky that exactly correlates to the resolutions and reconciliations below of the partnering visitors from Denmark.

This being a human comedy, the acting is paramount; it radiates anxiety, hopefulness, vulnerabilities, and profound stirrings of the heart. A rock to others, at the center is Andreas, the new minister, wonderfully well played by Anders W. Berthelsen. But all the acting is pitch-perfect. My two favorite characters are Olympia, the overwhelmed bakery clerk forever dropping pastries on the floor, and Halvfinn, the new Italian instructor who needs to learn when to keep his smart mouth shut, and whose face in one particular instance collapses into an unforgettable mixture of pride, defeat and broken-heartedness. Anette Støvelbæk and Lars Kaalund play these two beautifully.

Scherfig’s writing is brilliant. How nice the director can at least take credit for that.

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