Bird Watching – Lone Scherfig’s “Italian for Beginners”

I had never known anything about the film Italian for Beginners, except that I remember seeing it in the video store back in the Blockbuster days and immediately dismissing it as a rental possibility based on the hideous box art alone. This is shallow of me, I know. But there are many, many more interesting films out there than I will ever have time to see in my lifetime, and some criteria has to be used to sift through them all and choose what to spend precious time on. Everything about that box art screamed that this would be a film that would annoy the hell out of me. Based on that picture, I figured this film would probably be about an American exchange student finding herself—and love!—while studying in Venice. Some Italian artist would teach her about life, passion, and wine. No thanks, box art. Not today. Not ever.

Well, as is often the case, Netflix’s insistence on recommending the film wore me down. It was on Instant Watch, and I finally noticed it was directed by a woman—a pretty interesting woman, Lone Scherfig. I caved, and decided to give it a whirl. And I ended up disliking the film for a whole different set of reasons than I’d feared.

First, the plot. We follow a band of nine characters living in a small town in Denmark. They are linked through an evening Italian class, but also through various other coincidental ways that will show themselves over the course of the film. There are best friends Jørgen and Finn, a bumbler and a man in desperate need of anger management training, respectively; a klutzy baker named Olympia; a hairdresser, Karen; a pastor called Andreas, who is a recent widower; a lovely waitress, Giulia, who already speaks Italian, but has a crush on Jørgen; and three other women who, because they won’t end up with a romantic connection to anyone else, receive little attention and seem to be there mostly for Finn to spout venom at. Them’s the breaks, ladies.

This type of “intertwining lives” set-up can be done well, even while liberally using coincidences and soap-opera-esque shocking revelations (see: the collected works of Charles Dickens, my favorite writer of all time). But I think the key to making it work is to own it with style, and that’s something this film just can’t do. And that’s because it’s a Dogme 95 film, another factor that probably would have kept me from watching it if I’d known beforehand.

Yes, I freely admit to not paying much attention to films that carry the Dogme 95 stamp. This is because I enjoy films that look good. I’m not saying that there aren’t worthy films where the production values are low, or that that’s the most important thing. But why operate under a system that doesn’t allow you to really make the best of easily attained resources? Dogme 95 discourages the use of basics such as a tripod or additional lighting. Italian for Beginners reportedly cost $600,000 to make, but looks like it was made for far, far less than that. Shouldn’t the goal for an emerging filmmaker be the opposite? There’s nothing wrong with experimenting with different constraints on creativity; often with any sort of creative endeavor, great things come from having to work with obstacles. But I have to say that I am glad that Lone Scherfig didn’t stick to this type of “natural” filmmaking, as her most recent film, An Education, was one of the nicest-looking films of recent years, with gorgeous cinematography and great attention to detail.

If I felt like I was watching something where the characters and events felt like they could have been plucked out of reality, then the home movie quality of Italian for Beginners might have worked for me. But I just didn’t. I didn’t believe that anyone would actually put up with the asshole Finn, let alone be drawn to him the way Karen the hairdresser will be. I didn’t feel any chemistry between the pastor and the klutz. And I don’t buy that two people can fall in love when they can barely communicate the simplest of ideas because of a language barrier. If you’re going to try to convince me of that, you at least need some sweeping background music, which is another thing Dogme 95 didn’t allow. (This idea would be executed somewhat better in another film I’m not a big fan of, Love, Actually—a film for which, in many ways, Italian for Beginners feels like a precursor. But at least that storyline had Colin Firth.)

It seems, though, that I am in the minority for not enjoying this film. It has an 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, many glowing user reviews on IMDb, and a slew of festival awards, including the Jury Prize at the 2001 Berlin International Film Festival. Its relatively low budget combined with the audience-friendly romantic plotlines made it one of the most profitable Danish films of all time when it hit theaters. (Another trivia bit, unrelated but interesting: though the film credits it as an original, Scherfig’s screenplay was later acknowledged to have been based on Maeve Binchy’s novel Evening Class.) Perhaps I have a cold heart, and this actually is a gem of a film, filled with endearing characters in a nice slice of life setting. Perhaps bad lighting is simply a dealbreaker for me. Either way, I wish I’d gone with that box-art-related instinct, and watched something else.

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Brandi is one of those people who worries about kids these days not appreciating black and white films. She also admires great moments of subtlety, since she has no idea how to be subtle herself.

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