Foreign-language classes are so filled with good-natured miscommunication, they're an ideal setting for comedy-drama - and in Italian for Beginners, writer-director Lone Scherfig adds the delicious incongruity of a bunch of depressed Danes learning the ebullient tongue of Italian.
As the classroom becomes a vaudeville hall, she sets the stage for humor that's effortless and blissfully humane. Even the simplest subtitles seem funny when these brooders adopt a Mediterranean lilt. Near the start, a pastor asks a church worker whether she's married. She replies: "No, but I'm taking Italian lessons." The glory of the movie is that we understand what she means.
In and out of the classroom, Italian for Beginners is an embracing picture. It's about romance for late bloomers and misfits, for all those who need either a second chance or a decent first chance for love. In her own unpretentious way, Scherfig obeys the Dogme95 filmmaking movement's famous "Vow of Chastity" - the 10 rules that its directors observe to wean themselves of slick or wasteful habits - and uses them to conjure a close-up intimacy between actors and audience. The performers are mostly unfamiliar to Americans; the exception is Anders W. Berthelsen, who starred in a previous Dogme95 movie, Mifune, and here plays the role of a humanistic pastor. By the end, we know them all as well as we do our friends. We recognize the tilt of a head, or the cut of a walk.
The performers populate a world that's streaked with light when things look darkest. (This movie has almost the opposite ratio of Four Weddings and a Funeral.) Laughs emerge neither from killer punch lines nor expertly timed pratfalls, but from Scherfig's essentially affirmative point of view. Instead of laboring over one-liners and sight gags, she and her ensemble provide signatures for each character that grow deeper and more ticklish as the movie goes on.
The picture's scruffy surface hides a dexterous balancing act. The lives of a half-dozen residents of a small town near Copenhagen intersect, with increasing intricacy, around a church, a restaurant, a hospital - and, most momentously, their night-school introductory Italian class.
Making a pastor the central figure of this lonely hearts club is a natural for a comedy-drama - especially when he's a regular fellow like Andreas (Berthelsen), a temporary minister whose predecessor was suspended for tossing the church organist off the balcony. Andreas, a lonely guy, recently lost his schizophrenic wife. Rather than sabotaging his faith, her demise firmed it up. His wife's tenacious belief confirmed his trust in a God who should be seen in people and not just viewed as an abstract focus of faith. Andreas' boyish spirit and compassion win over his congregants - notably Olympia (Anette Stovelbaek), a maladroit baker's helper.
Her existence has been an endless succession of menial jobs interspersed with bouts of verbal abuse from her father, whose wife (Olympia's mother) left him long ago. And her plight is mirrored by the handsome hair stylist Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen), whose dying mother uses her as an emotional workout machine.
Jorgen (Peter Gantzler), the mild receptionist at Andreas' hotel, and Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund), his macho best friend, share a different kind of family challenge: They have no families. Hal-Finn has spent his entire adulthood building up a sports restaurant, which he now regards - disastrously - as his home. When his scolding of customers becomes scandalous, Jorgen is ordered to fire him. Jorgen has one more problem, all his own: for nearly half a decade, he's been impotent. Hal-Finn's waitress friend, a lovely Italian girl named Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen), yearns to free him of that condition.
The way Scherfig feeds the plot elements into the story, we laugh at what appear to be non sequiturs, only to discover that they're sequiturs. A patient playing arias on the piano at the hospital where Karen's mother lies dying, or the legend that Olympia's mother was an Italian opera singer - these oddball touches and many others make perfect sense once we see the story whole.
The movie's combination of predictability and surprise is part of its charm. When we realize that the form of the film is romantic farce, we wait for the characters to pair off, as in a square dance. What's refreshing about this film is that much of it is a dance for squares: people who've honored obligations and now hunger for fulfillment. Indeed, that quasi-hipster Hal-Finn discovers he's more square - more vulnerable, more honorable - than he would have thought before Italian class.