Things can still be rotten in the state of Denmark. At least they are for the students in a Copen-hagen adult-education Italian language class in writer/director Lone Scherfig's "Italian for Beginners." The 12th movie made in accordance with the manifesto of her country's Dogma 1995 filmmaking collective is a cute-meet of the no longer cute -- former spring chickens who still crave sex and love, but whose idea of a hot date is an early-bird special.
What makes these characters fascinating is their absolute dullness. They are frustrated folks, struggling to own up to the warts (literal as well as figurative) of getting older and losing loved ones. At the local church, a temporary pastor, Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen, in a sublimely funny performance) doesn't help his flock age gracefully. Recently widowed and usually confused, Andreas is at a loss to defend himself against arguments that God is an abstraction; he also tends to mix up the scheduling of funerals, of which there are plenty.
The old Italian teacher chokes to death on a student's mispronunciation. Baker Olympia (Anette Stovelbaek) finds her father dead, only hours after he had scolded her about wasting time on Italian lessons. The ornery, morphine-driven mother of hairdresser Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen) succumbs just after chastising her daughter for making a career of "fondling strangers' hair for money."
Karen has an at-the-shampoo-sink tête-á-tête with washed-up soccer player Halvfinn (Lars Kaalund), who cheers for his Italian heroes while ostensibly managing a sports bar. Halvfinn mocks his customers in the language of love, abetted by Italian-born waitress Guila. ("Come into the kitchen and I'll castrate you," she tempts one patron.)
When Halvfinn is fired from the restaurant, he lands the job as replacement Italian teacher, and almost everyone in the cast starts showing up for classes. Before long, the students make a field trip to Venice, where the drizzling rain leads to a lot of wet kissing.
The cast is quite affable, the characters ever more endearing the better we get to know their quirks. But the film's appeal is likely limited to an older audience who can smile knowingly at having "been there, done that."
The film's essential problem is that it is mired in its Dogma. To satisfy the collective's no-nonsense tract, concocted by Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, a movie may have no "superficial action," no soundtrack, no dubbing, no scenes shot in a studio, no fixed cameras (hand-held only), no special effects, etc. With a bit of music and a few technical enhancements, the character portraits in "Italian for Beginners" might have been more enjoyable.
Ultimately, it is a pleasant enough movie, held together by skilled ensemble actors. But, as the characters in the story quickly come to realize, a little purity goes a long way.