This movie is charming, funny, sad, silly and sweet. Oh, and heartwarming.
No kidding. Writer/director Lone Scherfig has figured out virtually all there is to know about making delightful movies -- a good story, excellent actors (but none of them a star), and great sympathy for her characters.
The plot, intertwined stories of six lonely people near Copenhagen, is rather conventional. The six meet each other through a variety of devices, but all end up in one another's orbit, circling and trying to find a way in. The skill of the storytelling rests in all the small moments -- a lonely daughter comes home to her father only to hear him insult her, a gentle man confesses to his best friend his impotence and a woman overhears, a hair stylist's tears fall on the face of a silent client. Just persevering through life's difficult times -- the normal ones like the death of a parent or the loss of a job -- and still trying to find connection makes the cast so lovely and irresistible that they seem like old friends by the end.
Central to the action is Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen), a minister who has come to town to substitute for the regular priest who is on leave after assaulting the organist. At his hotel he meets Jrgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler), the kind and slightly bumbling receptionist at his hotel. Mortensen is best friends with Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund), a young, handsome and outrageously grumpy manager of a sports bar. These three men soon cross paths with Olympia (Anette Stvelbk), a clumsy bakery clerk, a beautiful hairdresser (Ann Eleonora Jrgensen), and the Italian waitress Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen), and all six find themselves in the same Italian class looking more for connection than language.
Most delightfully, each of the actors seems to fully inhabit their respective characters with all of their associated tics, quirks and telltale characteristics. This seems to be especially true of the men, who are so vulnerable and yet keep trying to find their way out of their loneliness. As they blunder along, your heart goes out to them again and again.
Lone Scherfig is part of the Dogme 95, a group of Danish filmmakers who adhere to strict guidelines for low-budget movie making: All films must be shot on location, the lighting and sound must be indigenous to that location, and the filming must be done on video with a handheld camera. This means, of course, that you wouldn't go see Dogme 95 films for their technical brilliance. But Italian for Beginners (in Danish and a little Italian with English subtitles) is also a great example of why technical brilliance by itself can rarely make a film worthwhile, whereas good writing, storytelling and acting can be all you need. Go see this film for a great demonstration of wholehearted storytelling and to witness the gray light of loneliness magically transform into the warm glow of friendship, sex and love.
-- Andrea Lucard