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Italiensk for begyndere (Italian for Beginners)

(2002) *** R
112 min. Miramax. Director: Lone Scherfig. Cast: Anders Wodskou Berthelsen, Anette Stovelbaek, Peter Gantzler, Ann Eleonora Jorgensen, Lars Kaalund.

Though the release of Italian for Beginners may represent a move toward humbler releases for Miramax, it also represents the Weinsteins' ongoing savvy for pegging indies with broad appeal. Though Italian for Beginners is a Danish film in compliance with Lars Von Trier's larky Dogme manifesto (no scoring, no sets, no special lighting, and so on), it could very well be a mainstream Hollywood romantic comedy, if it wasn't so well done.

The Dogme "Vow of Chastity" forbids films from adhering to a genre, but Italian for Beginners certainly doesn't land far from romantic comedy; even its dramatic elements serve as fodder for black comedy on the way to an upbeat wrapup. Foregoing elaborate artifice, writer-director Lone Scherfig focuses on characterization of an ensemble of lonely and broken souls. Without spilling any of the midplot twists, the story details the intersection of these lonelyhearts at a community center Italian course. Outside of class, the students toil (at jobs like hairdresser, restaurant worker, and pastor) and cope (with problems like death, impotency, and crises of faith), but they all have in common a deeper need to reconnect with another person in love, represented by the romance of the Italian language, with its hopeful promise of escape.

The cast, though hardly the photo-perfect stars we come to expect in our screen romances, is endearing and completely credible. Much of the material here is familiar (like the eroticism of the barber chair encounters, explored in depth in The Hairdresser's Husband), but Scherfig always provides a twist (here, it's haircutus interruptus). Scherfig's serious consideration of themes doesn't dig very deep, but Italian for Beginners will disappoint neither those looking for simple date-movie comfort nor those seeking a quirky, indie sensibility. In fact, it may stretch each audience a bit a new direction, and pleasingly so.

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