Italian For Beginners Review

Andreas (Anders Berthelsen) arrives in an isolated Danish town as the replacement pastor. His predecessor has been suspended and refuses to leave the manse so Andreas rents a room at the local hotel. At the hotel he meets Jørgen (Peter Gantzler), a friendly porter, who's just been told to fire his best friend, Halvfinn (Lars Kaalund), a temperamental and troubled orphan. Andreas tries to extend some sympathy for Jørgen's predicament and a strong friendship starts to form; Jørgen takes it upon himself to help the minister feel at home and invites him along to the Italian lessons that are being given by Marcello where the bruised and upset meet to forget about their daily lives and dream of living in Italy.

Back in 1995, four Danish directors (Von Trier, Vinterberg, Levring and Kragh-Jacobsen) set out 10 commandments (known as the "vows of chastity") which pitted them as a reaction against the Hollywood style of film-making that was plaguing much of the European output. Under Dogme 95, films will be cheap (often filmed on DV) and naturalistic (no extraneous lighting, makeup or studio effects) with the primary focus being the characters and the settings. Starting with a bang, Festen took no prisoners and received widespread acclaim from art-house audiences and critics alike. Since then D95 films have been produced throughout the world (there are 31 films officially recognised as Dogme 95 so far) though the original enthusiasm has somewhat abated.
Given the Dogme restrictions, your Hollywood-fed viewer will be less than impressed with the looks of Italian For Beginners or about what's happening on the screen with little in way of action (rule 6: "no superficial action") or swish cinematography. However the cast here crackles with life from the word go and you find yourself rapidly becoming emotionally entangled.
Despite themes of depression, suicide, death and loneliness, the film does manage to infuse some very funny moments without really becoming an all-out comedy. Even the more tender or emotional moments are controlled dexterously and avoid becoming excessively sentimental.

Remaining unpretentious throughout, the film fittingly achieves the supreme goal of D95 ("to force the truth out of my characters and settings") and gives us along with Mifune and Festen one of the best Danish contributions to the Dogme movement and a fine meditation on the ups and downs that life often serves us.

The DVD:
The image and the subtitles:
Given the general limitations of DV, the DVD transfer was always going to suffer from the source material. The image keeps that natural undefined nature of DV footage, but seems to have been filmed on a higher quality DV camera than many other Dogme films. Some scenes are relatively dark but that's part of the charm! The transfer does not seem to have added any extra artifacting meaning that the film looks as good as one can expect from a Dogme film. Of course, no anamorphic transfer was provided as all Dogme films are filmed in 4:3.
The subtitles are non-compulsory and therefore were transferred apart from the film. They didn't contain any grammatical mistakes that I could notice and were large enough to be comfortably read.

The sound:
We're given a 2.0 soundtrack but the sound is globally monaural. Since you have to record the sound at the same time as the image, any sound limitations are due to the director but in this case there's little to complain about - the voices are clear enough to follow...

The menus:
A basic still from the movie from which you can make your choices - nothing to get excited about...

The sole extras we get is the theatrical trailer which is transferred in full screen (though slightly clipped at the top and bottom) - another extra would have been appreciated (unless there's a dogme rule on DVD extras!) but given the limited appeal of the movie in the first place it's slightly unsurprising...

Italian For Beginners may not appeal to most viewers but is probably one of the more accessible films in the genre. With great performances and direction, the film will definitely appeal to most art-house fans. The DVD is very much a bare-bones do but doesn't suffer from any major technical flaw.

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