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Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Italian for Beginners

Posted By on Wed, Feb 20, 2002 at 12:00 AM

This is a Dogma 95 film, adhering to the code of stripped-down filmmaking originally advocated by Danish director Lars von Trier and a few of his equally ambitious peers. This means that the color looks a little faded, the camera is often handheld, seemingly random jump-cuts abound and no extraneous music is on the soundtrack (supposedly Dogma 95 directors are known to cheat on the premise now and then). Some people object to Dogma 95 on the grounds of pretension, which is a little like objecting to cheesecake on the grounds of sweetness — pretension, in the sense of a style which calls attention to itself, is built into the concept.

There have only been five Dogma 95 films and it’s my contention that the grimmer the material, the more effective the approach is. Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark and Thomas Vinterberg’s screwed-up family melodrama, The Celebration, benefited from this added gloss of alienation with their arrhythmic poking at the viewer’s aesthetic eye. But with Soren Kragh-Jacobsen’s Mifune, which was essentially a romantic comedy, it felt like a layer that had to be peeled away to get to the film’s small core.

More layer-peeling is required for writer-director Lone Scherfig’s Italian for Beginners in order to get to its pleasantly inconsequential story of three couples fated to eventually get together. The film follows them in their individual lives and at their common meeting ground, a class where they’re all learning Italian. The characters are mostly sympathetic, the situations mostly low-keyed and believable. It’s a combination of the charming (as love prevails) and the grotesque (as the Dogma 95 style casts its baleful gaze): At one point, a woman comes home to find her elderly father has died — with his head thrown back and mouth agape, he looks like something from one of Ingmar Bergman’s grislier nightmares.

Italian for Beginners is being touted as a saucy romp, but you should be warned that the sauce has a few poison mushrooms in it. Proceed with caution.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at


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