Reviewed by Dennis Morton
Watching “Italian For Beginners” I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, “Cat’s Cradle.” Vonnegut’s book is full of neologisms coined by a character named Bokonon. It’s been more than thirty years since I read the book, but I remember one of Bokonon’s simple rhymes. It goes something like this: nice, nice, very nice / so many people in the same devise… And Bokonon had a name for unrelated folks who seemed destined to come together to fulfill a providentially inspired plan. Such a grouping was called a “karass.”
There’s a “karass” in “Italian For Beginners.” It’s at the center of the film – a group of lonely Danes who congregate once a week at the local community center, ostensibly to learn Italian. Loneliness, loss, friendship and the possibility of romantic love are among the subjects that fuel “Italian For Beginners.”
I’ve seen this movie several times. I like it. The acting is good. The characters are believable. But there’s something mysteriously simple about “Italian For Beginners” that seems to defy analysis.
I participate in a weekly discussion group about the movies. And last week we tackled this one. We had a spirited conversation that lasted for over an hour, and most of us agreed that it was an above average film. The adjective that surfaced most frequently was “sweet.” It was a sweet movie, but an elusive one.
“Italian For Beginners” opens with a shot of Andreas, a newly ordained minister, being led into a church. His charge is to rescue the congregation from the miscreancy of the previous pastor, an older man in the throes of a long mourning. Andreas is ushered into the church by a woman we soon learn is an ex-convict who paid for her heroin habit by knocking off pairs of fast food joints and other symbols of the global corporate empire.
In short order we meet, one by one, most of the other members of what I’ll call, ala Vonnegut, the karass. There’s an irascible manager of a sports bar. There’s a hotel receptionist, a clumsy pastry shop clerk, a hair stylist, and an Italian waitress, plus a handful of minor characters. Most of them seem to need haircuts, which conveniently places them at one time or another in the stylist’s small salon. But the place they all meet, on a weekly basis, is the local community center. There they are learning “Italian,” the language of romance.
An unexpected death in the class room, one of five deaths that figure prominently in the narrative, triggers events which drive the movie to its simple conclusion. Along the way we observe odd couplings in the making. Not the least of them is a set of lovers who enjoy having sex in public places.
“Italian For Beginners” is a product of the Dogme 95 school of film-making. To receive the Dogme 95 imprimatur, a film must meet a litany of requirements, some of which include hand held cameras, an absence of sound track, all natural lighting, no constructed sets, and no violence by gun.
The Dogme 95 school was founded by the Danish director Lars Von Trier. It’s a reaction to the typical Hollywood production, and as such, makes some sense to me. But I’m more concerned with the final product than the rules by which a movie is made.
I like “Italian For Beginners” because it’s a pretty good movie. Decent writing, good direction and good acting are among my requirements. “Italian For Beginners” passes that test. “Italian For Beginners” is playing at The Nickelodeon Theatre in downtown Santa Cruz.
Copyright Dennis Morton 2002