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'Italian for Beginners'

'Italian for Beginners' a lesson in determination

Friday, February 22, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In "Italian for Beginners," the boyishly handsome Hal-Finn is the manager of a hotel sports restaurant and he plays -- or talks -- rough with the customers.

'Italian For Beginners'

RATING: R for language and some sexuality.

STARRING: Anders W. Berthelsen, Lars Kaalund

DIRECTOR: Lone Scherfig



He calls one patron "a pig" for placing a used teaspoon on the tablecloth. He ridicules another for mistakenly trying to order from the children's menu. He shouts, to diners, "This is a restaurant, not an orphanage," which is where he grew up.

Yes, Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund) has his troubles, as do the other half-dozen people in an Italian for beginners class in Copenhagen one gray winter.

Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen) is a widower and temporary pastor at a church where the old pastor refuses to relinquish the residence and lashes out at his successor. Olympia (Anette Stovelbaek) is a sweet but clumsy bakery worker who lives with her contemptuous father. Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen) is a hairdresser whose ailing mother insults her and sprays her with water when she gently tries to wash the older woman's hair. Polite but shy Jorgen (Peter Gantzler) works at the hotel and has trouble connecting with women.

Weathering unemployment, family deaths, late-in-life surprises and self-doubt, the adult students find going to the Italian class changes their fate and -- ultimately, their lives.

This is no "Bread and Tulips," the sweet, romantic Italian film about a middle-aged homemaker who gets left behind in Venice and decides to stay. This subtitled movie, from writer-director Lone Scherfig, takes Denmark's Dogma school of filmmaking in a new direction. Under the Dogma rules, directors must use natural locations, sound and lighting and hand-held cameras, and this film tries to do all that and be witty, touching and romantic, too. It succeeds.

The way the camera jumps around at the beginning may make you a little dizzy or annoyed, but you get used to it. Or maybe the camera operator developed a steadier hand.

Scherfig says her characters contrast sharply with the sort typically found in U.S. movies. She says about Julia Roberts and Michelle Pfeiffer, "You watch movies with those women and you want to be those women. These characters, they want to be you. They are six insecure singles, all trying to get their lives on track."

Even when they're behaving badly -- and that mainly applies to the impulsive Hal-Finn -- you cannot help but root for them. They seem to be good people who deserve a little happiness. You cringe when Olympia loses her grip on a tray of pastries and unwittingly crowns them with broken eggs. You agonize with Karen as her hospitalized mother implores her to open the morphine drip. You want to nudge Jorgen in the direction of a woman ripe for his wooing.

This movie, opening at the Squirrel Hill Theater, has a stark, naturalistic feel, but an intimate one, too. It makes a case for doing one small thing -- doggedly attending an Italian class, even when it appears to be canceled -- to improve your life. Despite a litany of losses at the beginning, the mood gradually lightens and, by the end, you'll want to toast this captivating class with a glass of good red wine.

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