ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS
directed by Lone Scherfig with Anders W. Berthelsen, Ann Eleonora Jrgensen, and Lars Kaalund opens Feb. 1 at Harvard Exit
WHAT'S WRONG with American romantic comedy? No, not Meg Ryan; she's just a symptom of a much more insidious disease: It's gotten too damn nice. No one's sly or stylish or biting; everyone's messily coiffed, impeccably pretty, "fun" but not funny. There's no foil for the romance or the comedy, no bit of darkness to give perspective and depth to the light, and there's never more than the haziest hint of actual sex—although that's ostensibly what it's all about.
The rest of the world maintains a little grit, raciness, and humor about love, sending us occasional care packages like Innocence, Jalla! Jalla!, and now Italian for Beginners. Half a dozen Danish singles end up, predictably, in the same Italian class and, predictably, pair off. But the film benefits mightily from hewing to Dogma standards. Without the sheen of perfect lighting and fancy camera work and swelling soundtrack to cue your responses, Italian has the sweet surprise of people pairing off in real life.
Italian also has the sweet surprise of characters who seem real. The cast of thirtysomethings lacks the aggressive good looks of American stars; they are tired, a little lined, the kind of people who, as in life, only begin to seem lovely as you get to know them. The recently widowed pastor (that's right, pastor) is handsome in an oblique way, calmly blinking behind his glasses; his new friend, Jrgen, has a big square face and a furrowed brow that makes you want to give him a hug. (And he hooks up with the film's sole true hottie—only in Europe.) The women are gorgeous in a worried, worn-down way; their parents are mentally ill or cruel and keep dying. One of the men is kind of an asshole, and not the kind who's going to realize it and magically change; one of the women seems a little slow.
Sound sexy? It is, in ways both subtler and more explicit than our stateside attempts. Relationships develop slowly, fearfully, and with flaws. The Copenhagen setting is unremittingly bleak, so warm glances and funny remarks are all the more important. (There are even gentle, good-hearted messages here about faith and grief.) When a couple suddenly starts tearing each other's clothes off and going at it on a desk, it seems quite shocking—but that's what it's all about, isn't it?