On the surface, "Italian for Beginners" is about half a
dozen adults on the threshold of middle age – still quite young, but on the
whole past the age of rebellion, wunderlust, and starry-eyed fancies. Which is
to say that they all have jobs to go to and their failures and problems are of
the sort to mark them as ordinary human beings making their way through life.
Sure enough, this does not seem like the stuff of award-winning cinema.
Moreover, writer and director Lone Scherfig is faithful to the Dogme “vow
of chastity“, making this a low-budget (all things considered), no frills
production. Yet this film has received an armload of awards. Why? Because it is
neither sentimental nor melodramatic, but rather intelligent in its handling of
emotional themes; and so it manages laughter alongside grief, and its audience
is anyone old enough to have experienced loss, and young enough to be in love.
Andreas (Anders W.
Berthelsen) is a young minister who comes to a small
community in modern-day Denmark to replace the old minister – Pastor Wredmann –
who has alienated his congregation. Wredmann continues to occupy the rectory, so
Andreas takes up lodgings in the local hotel where he encounters and befriends
the desk clerk, Jørgen Morgenstern (Peter
Gantzler), who is supposed to, but can’t, fire the
obstreperous restaurant manager, Halvfinn (Lars Kaalund),
who is Morgenstern’s best friend. When the hotel manager steps in and
unceremoniously dismisses Halvfinn, Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen),
who works in the kitchen, leaves too. Add Olympia (Anette Støvelbæk),
the clumsy bakery store clerk, and Karen (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen),
the hairdresser, and the central cast is complete.
The literal connection of the
title centres around a beginner’s class in Italian, and Scherfig here pokes some
fun at community-organized evening activities. There aren’t enough people for
the class, and after the instructor keels over in the middle of a lesson,
Halvfinn, who speaks fluent Italian, in due course replaces him. Olympia is
there out of a sincere interest to do something for herself; Andreas is there
for wont of something to do with his time; Karen has a crush on Halvfinn;
Morgenstern signs up to impress Giulia; and Giulia at last joins in because she
is in love with Morgenstern, and he in his innocent enthusiasm has asked her to
take the class with him, neglecting that she is a native Italian and has no need
to learn the language.
Far from falling into slapstick,
which she might easily have done with this set-up, Scherfig keeps her attention
on the emotional keel of these people’s lives as they contend with both love and
death. In addition to the dead teacher of Italian, there are no fewer than five
other deaths we learn about in the course of the film. And people being people,
the main characters are given to falling in love. Karen and Halvfinn need to
work out their reckless attraction to each other; Morgenstern and Giulia their
traditional one. Andreas and Olympia, with a mixture of awkwardness and
tenderness, open their hearts to each other.
It may be argued that the film is
a tribute to conservative middle class suburban heterosexual values, anchored,
more or less, in the church. Also, it may be said that the film skirts around a
great deal of conflict that is at the heart of human drama. These observations
only point to the locus of the film. These characters are people who have ageing
and dying parents in their lives, or people who have been married and have lost
their spouses to progressive disabilities. They are, it may be said, altogether
ordinary. Morgenstern is a mild-mannered hotel receptionist worried about his
sex life. Giulia is a humble restaurant worker. Karen is a hairdresser working
in a shop that gets just enough business, it seems, to keep going. One day
she would like to own the shop. Halvfinn is a hot-tempered man who grew up
in an orphanage and is getting through life by hook and crook, but someone who,
when faced with a conflict either at work or with his woman, doesn’t know how to
react or respond. Andreas is trying his best to live up to his calling as a
pastor to share in the burdens and sufferings and joys of a community. Olympia
has to face her inabilities and disabilities.
We are outside the realm here of
greed and competition, of movers and shakers, or even of people who aspire to
being movers and shakers. These characters are not doing deals. They’re not in
positions of significant power, socially speaking. They’re not either
particularly downtrodden. They’re members of society who get up in the morning
and go to work and for whom some things are clear, and other things not. They
are not especially driven or daring – at least not outwardly. They are the meek.
And if they do not inherit the earth, well, they’ve inherited a part of it.
Olympia says matter-of-factly in one significant exchange with Karen, “I
inherited you.” This is not sentiment. Karen responds with a gesture and look
that says, “not much of an inheritance.” These are not people out to get,
exploit, or manipulate. They don’t have access to enough resources or power for
any of that, and though far from old, their daily reality keeps their
aspirations and fancies in check.
Andreas and Karen
It is, in fact, in the
insignificance that these characters have that they shine. And here Scherfig has
done something uncommonly remarkable. She has included as both backdrop and
integral element to her story, the church, specifically the Evangelical
Lutheran Church of Denmark.
A bit of background information. Denmark has been
Christian since the ninth century, and though freedom of religion was adopted as
part of the democratization of the country in 1849, and despite the modern trend
to secularization, over 80% of the population still claim some form of
allegiance to the church. The
Danish Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs administers tax money collected on
behalf of the church and claims that 84.7% of the population in 2001 were
willing to pay taxes to the church. (See their publication entitled “The
Church in Denmark“.) According to the web site of
The Council on International Relations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church,
87% of the population belongs to the church, 80% of newborns are
baptized, 79% of 13-14 year old children are confirmed, 54% of couples are
married, and 93% of deaths are celebrated with a church funeral.
The presence of the church in the
film – the rather unforced presence of it – is therefore unsurprising. The
church is presented neither as that without which one is lost, nor as an object
of contempt and derision. It is a part of the social life of the community, no
more, no less. Scherfig has made it integral to her film, however, and does not
either shy away from the secular realities of contemporary life.
Here are just some of the
religious elements of the film. The film opens in the first week of advent, the
four weeks in the Christian calendar that lead up to Christmas. The film
involves not one, but two, pastors, who, moreover, engage in a form of
theological debate concerning the conceptual status of God and his presence in
daily life. Morgenstern sings joyously on Christmas day, along with a host of
others who, on that day, fill the church. Funeral services take place in the
church. One of the incidental characters in the film, who works at the church,
is an ex-con and former drug user who wears leather pants and straightforwardly
declares that she has found God. On an ecumenical note, Giulia, who expects a
Catholic wedding and marriage, prays to the Virgin Mary, and her prayers are
answered, even though she is praying for an older Danish man, hardly the
archetype of Italian Catholicism. And, on a humanistic note, Andreas, the young
pastor, finds a friend, a confessor in Morgenstern. The link between the
religious and secular is complete when Halvfinn, the most unlikely churchgoer of
the bunch, pulls Andreas aside for a few minutes of counsel after one of their
What Scherfig manages is to portray the church in
terms of the different characters; and the different relationships the
characters have to the church contributes to our understanding of them.
Karen provides a good example here. She attends her mother’s
funeral service respectfully, but she does not have any other affiliation with
the church. She is also someone with a great sensitivity and depth of feeling
which she shows towards her mother, towards Halvfinn, and towards Olympia. It is
as though the motto of the church were: let those enter who wish or need to
enter. And, indeed, Olympia goes one day to see Andreas. She is not there to
pray or confess, however, but to be listened to.
In general, the film is shot
through with layers and details that Scherfig gets right, and it is the
cumulative effect of these elements that makes the film work so well. Strange to
say, perhaps, but the unadorned aesthetic of the Dogme formula is perfectly
suited to the Christian character of the film.
Karen and Halvfinn
Dogme films have as an explicit
goal to dispense with the artificiality and illusion, at
every turn, of Hollywood, but the trade-off
is that the syntax of cinema may also be sacrificed. Go back to Bergman
at his best or Kieslowski’s obsession with cinematographic details, and you see
the virtue of cinematographic sculpting, the virtue of cinematic illusion. There
is one scene in "Italian for Beginners" where an important detail is nearly
lost. The scene is the clash between Andreas and Wredmann. At the close of this
scene, Wredmann’s hand is against the side of Andreas’s face, and slowly falls
away. This physical contact is significant for its actual gentleness and
intimacy as it comes from Wredmann who is being unseated in the congregation by
Andreas and who is vituperative and antagonistic toward Andreas from the start.
It is, thus, akin to the touch of a leper. It is a powerful detail in the film
but easily missed because of the hand-held camera work which focuses on the
actors’ faces while Wredmann’s hand touches the side of Andreas’s head that is
away from the camera.
What carries the film, though,
are the stories. It is all too easy to forget about the hand-held camera work,
location filming, and so forth. The characters are all faced with difficulties.
Andreas must find it in himself to stand up for the congregation which Wredmann
is leaving in the lurch. Olympia is trying to have a life in spite of the
albatross around her neck of her housebound and miserable old father. Karen is
watching her alcoholic mother die an unpleasant death under sensible, yet strict
conditions of hospital care. Halvfinn has to learn that his outbursts may have
consequences that matter to him. Morgenstern has to add some courage to his
kindness. And Giulia makes a sacrifice of her own in order to get her man.
Over and above these difficulties
are the realities of death and loss that several of the characters have to face.
Old Pastor Wredmann, we learn, dwells on loss without grieving and moving on. In
one of numerous fine touches in the film, Andreas, after his clash with
Wredmann, tells Olympia that he was just reading about loss, as if to say that
maybe Wredmann, for all his callousness, and maybe in spite of himself, has
something to teach him. For, among other things, Andreas has his own loss to
Life, however, is to be lived.
One of the great accomplishments of the film is to show us love and loss as two
sides of the same coin. Our losses become part and parcel of who we are, and it
is in the acceptance of our losses, and of ourselves, that we are able to love.
"Italian for Beginners"
is typically described as a romantic comedy. The distributor,
Trust Film, correctly cross lists it as “Drama/Comedy.” To see it too much in
terms of a romantic comedy is to gloss over a great deal that has been handled
well with intelligence, subtlety, and care.
Berlin International Film Festival:
Silver Bear Jury Prize: Lone Scherfig,
For advancing the Dogme movement by permitting the cast to bring
humanity and humour to her film.
Prize of the Ecumenical Jury
Contact: John Kerkhoven