- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

''Italian for Beginners" is an admirably inviting title and more droll than you expect, since it belongs to a Danish movie.

The invitation could prove exceptionally welcome during a weekend in which the major new attractions from Hollywood, "Dragonfly" and "Queen of the Damned," might as well sport toxic warning labels.

A half-dozen wonderful plots could be nestled in something called "Italian for Beginners." The one chosen by writer-director Lone Scherfig emphasizes redemptive matchmaking and friendship designed to salvage a group of lovelorn souls encountered within what appears to be walking distance of one another in a Copenhagen suburb.

The central location is a hotel (the Scandic in Hvidore, for those who grow fond enough to contemplate a pilgrimage) whose amenities or neighbors include a restaurant, a pool, meeting rooms, a bakery, a hair salon and a church (Strandmarkskirken).

Playful and serendipitous coincidence abounds as Miss Scherfig sorts things out between a widowed substitute pastor, Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen); jittery bakery clerk Olympia (Anette Stoevelbaek,); shy hotel manager Jorgen (Peter Gantzler); Italian waitress Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen); hotheaded restaurant manager Halvfinn (Lars Kaalund); and hairdresser Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen).

Sooner or later, these characters join an Italian language class that meets weekly and suffers a mortal crisis when the instructor has a coronary on the job. To secure the meeting room, the class needs at least eight members. It teeters on the verge of cancellation for a few scenes, until a substitute and some additional pupils are found.

One of the inside jokes is that pastor Andreas has already come to town as a substitute, hired to relieve a fuming liability called Rev. Wredmann (Bent Mejding), who evidently has entered some belligerent bipolar phase in which antagonizing the congregation is his only source of gratification. He insists on hanging around the church to heckle the newcomer.

Mild-mannered Andreas takes awhile to realize that a discouraging assignment might have promise, once word gets around that a nicer man has arrived to shepherd the flock.

Miss Scherfig interweaves her matchmaking bent with a tendency to snuff certain characters. "Beginners" proves a soulmate of "Monster's Ball" when it comes to eliminating deadwood in the family to make room for consoling romance or companionship. The device can be accepted more easily in Miss Scherfig's setup because she's clearly a humorous executioner and funnier because she insists on pushing her luck, linking coincidence to character disposal.

The movie's defects are as evident as its charm and invention. Miss Scherfig, aligned with the Dogma Collective in Scandinavia, which presumes to make a virtue of no-frills production, reveals little in the way of pictorial or sensuous flair. The movie doesn't even make much use of Copenhagen as a scenic resource. That limitation may enhance the finale, in which the class members share an excursion to Venice, Italy, in the winter, finally giving the movie some gratuitous scenic appeal.

As a rule, and perhaps by dogmatic design, Miss Scherfig is we ded to claustrophobic and hand-held camerawork that seems to oppress the characters as much as their insecurities and shortcomings.

But the movie also demonstrates how good will and human interest can transcend a humdrum facade.


TITLE: "Italian for Beginners"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and sexual candor, including brief simulations of intercourse; fleeting violence)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Lone Scherfig. Cinematography by Jorgen Johansson. In Danish and Italian with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: About 100 minutes


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