Italian for Beginners (2001)


By Todd R. Ramlow

Unhappy Families

There is something so earnest about a certified Dogme 95 film. And “certified” is key to these films’ authenticity. Harmony Korine caused something of a mini-controversy for claiming that his Julien Donkey Boy was a Dogme film, when the film didn’t bear the pre-opening credits certificate, and despite the fact that he so earnestly (and dogmatically) insisted that he had adhered to the strict technical and thematic limitations of the code.

For those of you unfamiliar with the basic tenets of Dogme 95, it is a manifesto that was issued by a loose collective of international (mostly European) filmmakers that cavils against the state of modern cinema, and particularly the wretched excesses of standard Hollywood fare. Just so, the group has called for a return to a sort of bare bones filmmaking. No artificial lighting. No intrusive special effects or musical soundtracks. No fantasy flights into specific genres. In fact, no genre films at all. And, in terms of narrative, nothing that might not actually happen in real world lives and situations. Dogme films, in other words, must adhere to a resolute realism.

The potential downfalls of this cinematic dogmatism are twofold. First is a thematic problem, in so far as the films are constrained by the limits of “realism.” In order to stick to depictions of real life, Dogme films have relied on experiences of human indignity and abuse. Since they are in short supply in life, apparently, happiness and pleasure don’t make for compelling realistic movies. One rather dour consequence of this is the implicit suggestion that human beings are, by “nature,” miserable. What this dwelling in the tragic also means is that Dogme films often slip into what might be the code’s own genre (despite its edict against genres), which is melodrama. Surely, “real life” cannot be as uniformly bleak at these films so often aver.

The second, and connected, problem is that these human melodramas work best on a small scale. To tell the specifics of anyone’s misery, it is best to stick with a small, select group of characters. This is what made Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration so smart and successful. In the film, a family gathers at a small, isolated country estate for the patriarch’s 60th birthday, during the celebration of which all sorts of skeletons come raging out of dusty closets. The film is as claustrophobic as the rural manse, and we spend a great deal of time getting to know the intricacies of the family’s intimate relationships.

Unfortunately, Lone Scherfig’s Italian for Beginners is a more sprawling affair. The film takes on too much, or at least too many characters, and as a result, often loses cohesion. Set in a drab, semi-rural Danish suburb presumably somewhere on the outskirts of Copenhagen), it chronicles a short period in the lives of a group of lonely and dispirited thirty-something singles. There’s Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen), the pastor who recently lost his wife, sent to replace the newly faithless Pastor Wredman (Bent Mejding), who (not so) coincidentally has also recently lost his own wife. And then there is Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund), the misanthropic and opinionated sports bar/restaurant manager, and his pal, Jorgen (Peter Gantzler), the impotent hotel clerk. Also along for the ride are Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen, an honest to god ringer for Frances McDormand), a hairdresser with a terminally ill, morphine-addicted mother; and Olympia (Anette Stovelbaek), a clumsy bakery worker (whose ungainliness, we learn, is the result of fetal alcohol syndrome) with a terminally atrocious father.

The device that brings all these disparate characters together? They all take a conversational Italian class at a local community center. Well, okay, it could happen, although the class would be pretty dreary with this sad lot. The lumping together of all these characters with their similar tragedies in and around one little local language class seems just a bit too convenient, so that taken all together the film hardly feels “realistic” at all.

In order to mitigate the convenience of this situation, Scherfig (who also wrote the script) also connects her characters in another way: all suffer from similar familial and/or sexual dysfunctions. In the famous opening lines of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In Scherfig’s hands, this axiom is twisted past recognition. There are no happy families, and all unhappy families resemble one another. Or at least all unhappy people are unhappy for similar reasons.

The failures of love, of constancy and devotion, in human relationships is the main theme here, and Scherfig spins out many such failures in her characters’ travails. Karen, for instance, tries gamely to retain some sort of affection for her mother, even while her mother’s illness is an emotional and economic burden, and even though her mother constantly berates her choice of career and accuses Karen of “dressing like a whore.” Similarly, Olympia suffers the verbal abuse and vitriol of her elderly father with unending patience, all in the name of trying to preserve the fantasy of a “happy” and “normal” family life. Of course, things get complicated as the group gathers for their weekly language lesson, and they (and we) discover how similar their individual miseries are to each other’s. Through their interactions in and outside of the Italian class, all these characters assert one, or perhaps two, things: families suck and love is at most dicey, and fleeting at the very least.

Where Italian for Beginners differs from other Dogme 95 fare is that its end isn’t totally catastrophic. This isn’t to say it has a happy ending, just that it doesn’t end with the usual emotional wasteland littered by human wreckage (as in The Celebration). Karen and Olympia, for example, can finally admit to themselves, in the wake of their respective parent’s deaths, exactly how loveless and dysfunctional their family lives were. And once they meet, at Andreas’ church, where both of their parents’ funerals are taking place (how’s that for “coincidence”), they discover the secret of their own, unknown, long lost relationship.

From this point the two women begin to construct a new sense of family with each other, fully aware of the abuses in each other’s past. And so too do Andreas, Hal-Fin, and Jorgen work through their various traumas, with the help, and sometimes interference, of their classmates, and move hesitantly towards some sort of happiness. And this is the best reason to spend some time with Scherfig’s so very unhappy individuals and families.

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