Italian for Beginners
directed by Lone Scherfig
(Miramax, 2000)

Few things could be more oppressively dank, from the looks of this movie, than cold, rainy days in Denmark. Now try being shy or self-doubting or clumsy or completely defensive and antisocial. In rainy Denmark.

What's funny about Italian for Beginners is that it manages to take all these imperfect characters and make them, in their own awkward ways, just perfect, thank you very much.

Written and directed by Lone Scherfig, Italian for Beginners has little to do with Italy, per se, and even less to do with the pretty cheesy design of its video sleeve. Instead, it's a quiet, almost deadpan comedy about people who, for various reasons, can't quite make the connection with other people. It's about loneliness, and about the transformation that can come when your routine is upset, when you venture out toward something new.

There's Olympia, a bakery clerk who is a walking accident of clumsiness; Karen, a hairdresser who spends much of her time caring for her mother; Jorgen Mortensen, a hotel employee who's not great at his job and even worse at love; his friend Halfvinn, a belligerent restaurant manager who treats his kitchen like his own home; Andreas, a novice minister and widower; and Giulia, a young Italian woman who works in Halfvinn's restaurant.

Some are naive, others are hardened, and all, in some way, feel unlovable. One by one, they find their way to a series of Italian lessons run by the local government council.

Of course, learning Italian could symbolize learning a more outgoing, demonstrative way to live, but Italian for Beginners doesn't really make that much of this stereotype. (It does, however, infer all Italians are Catholic, young Italian women pray to the Virgin Mary for love and Italians prefer to remain chaste until marriage.)

But really, Italy itself takes up only the final 10 minutes of the movie. The Danes, and a Danish sensibility, rule most of the movie. It's a reserve that fits well with director Scherfig's tactics.

Scherfig follows the Dogme95 manifesto, a set of rules drawn up by Danish director Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves) that requires filmmakers to turn their backs on many of their standard crutches: Elaborate props. Special lighting and superficial action. Filming on movie sets. Nice lens filters and musical scores. Instead, it's back to the basics: hand-held cameras, location shoots, props that can be found only on location and no special costuming. It is, according to the Dogme95 website, an appropriately titled Vow of Chastity.

And, in several Italian for Beginners scenes, it's also admittedly jarring. No nice, flowing cuts from one character to another, but a rougher feel that gives some action to what can be a static scene.

And, like taking Italian transforms a bunch of strangers into something more interesting, Scherfig's adherence to von Trier's "rules" pushes this movie beyond a nice little piece into something more rewarding.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 31 May 2003

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