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Italian for Beginners

Mainstream movie-watchers not used to the spare, realistic style of the filmmakers who adhere to the rigid "Dogme95" guidelines established by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg may find that Italian for Beginners (2000) at first leaves them cold. But bear with it; once you get used to the handheld camerawork and the minimalist production values, you'll discover a beguiling romantic dramedy that feels as authentic as your own home movies (thankfully, though, it's a lot more interesting!). The Danish film follows a group of lonely, drifting people who find friendship and purpose — and, for some, love — at a weekly Italian class. Per the Dogme95 "Vow of Chastity," director Lone Scherfig eschews props, costumes, lighting, sets, and a soundtrack in favor of "found" locations and almost voyeur-like cinematography, using her handheld digital video camera to capture genuine emotions and reactions from her actors. There's shy, amiable bachelor Jørgen (Peter Gantzler); thoughtful pastor Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen); tentative, clumsy shopgirl Olympia (Anette Støvelbæk); short-tempered restaurant manager Halvfinn (Lars Kaalund); passionate hairstylist Karen (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen); and fiery waitress Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen), as well as a few others who never quite make it into the forefront of the film's action. All are convincing, sympathetic characters (with the possible exception of Halvfinn, whom Kaalund makes a little too hot-headed to be completely believable), and while the movie has a few plot zingers hidden up its sleeves, for the most part Italian for Beginners is happy to focus on the group's halting search for happiness and fulfillment. It's a search most viewers will be able to identify with, which makes the characters' journey all that much more engrossing and sympathetic. That intimate connection with the audience also makes Italian for Beginners a perfect fit for home viewing. The film plays well on Buena Vista/Miramax's DVD; the 1.55:1 transfer is so clear that you won't have to take Scherfig's word for it that her actors aren't wearing any special make-up, and the Dolby 2.0 Surround audio (in Danish) makes the most of the movie's quiet moments as well as its introspective dialogue (English subtitles are available). In keeping with the austere Dogme95 rules, the disc doesn't offer any fluffy featurettes or other special features; the sole extra is a quintet of trailers for other Miramax movies. Keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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