"Reviving a Dead Church"
ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS is a wonderful sacramental movie filled with faith, love and grace. It is directed and written by Lone Scherfig, a woman who has adopted some self-imposed restrictions created by a group of Danish filmmakers, known as “Dogme 95.” Prior to this movie, it seemed like all of the Dogme 95 movies had a Marxist agenda. ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS is a startling, radical departure from previous Dogme 95 movies. First, because it focuses on building a church, and second because it tells a powerful, traditional, dramatic motion picture story within the Dogme 95 restrictions. It is the type of movie that will make viewers laugh and cry at the same time, and give them a new lease on life.
The movie opens with Pastor Andreas being shown around the Danish Lutheran Church, where he will serve as the interim pastor. The parishioner who attends to him asks him if he is taking Italian lessons. When he checks into his hotel, the desk clerk, Jorgen Mortensen, asks him the same question. Pastor Andreas responds by asking why everyone is asking this question, and Jorgen mentions that he is taking Italian lessons at the community center.
When Pastor Andreas goes to preach, there are only three people in the congregation, one of who is the embittered former pastor. The former pastor is upset with Andreas’ belief in God, makes a scene and stomps out. Thus, the service has to be cancelled because there are not enough congregants.
Meanwhile, Jorgen is told he must fire Hal-Finn, the manager of the restaurant owned by the hotel. They are friends and both take Italian lessons together. Jorgen doesn’t have it in him to fire Finn.
A hairdresser, named Karen, is having trouble with her terminally ill mother. Finn goes to her salon, and they are instantly attracted to each other, but she breaks away to take care of her mother. This happens several times. Eventually, her mother is in the hospital dying. She keeps pleading for more painkiller. Karen finally turns up the intravenous drip, causing herself a crisis of conscience.
Her sister, Olympia, whom she has never met, works in a pastry shop. She has a syndrome common to children of alcoholic mothers and keeps dropping items. Olympia also decides to take Italian, and, tragically, her father dies while she is away at the lesson. Andreas must perform the funeral for the father, and shortly thereafter for the mother. This brings the two sisters together because their parents separated when they were young.
One by one, Pastor Andreas ministers to the alienated, the needy and the lost within his community. He notes that his wife died recently and that she was a woman of great faith. Her death strengthened his faith. On the other hand, the former Pastor’s wife died four years previously, and he complains that God took his wife and his faith. He now refuses to believe in God.
Andreas’ love, compassion and preaching builds the church. By Christmas it is packed. The core group is all those who are taking Italian for beginners. Love, compassion and faith flourishes. Eventually, Olympia inherits some money from her deceased father and decides to take the entire class to Italy to celebrate.
ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS is a life-affirming, sacramental movie on the order of the famous TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS by Olmi. There are problems which are painful and intense, but Pastor Andreas’ faith and compassion seems to overcome all of these obstacles. Karen is filled with guilt over turning up the morphine drip for her mother, but eventually she is told by her mother’s nurse that her mother did not die of morphine but of pancreatic cancer. Karen has an intense physical relationship with Finn, but wants permanence. She rebukes Finn for defaming her mother behind her back and he duly apologizes.
Two of the most profound characters in this movie are Jorgen and the Italian waitress, Julia, whom he loves from afar. She prays (regrettably to the virgin mother) for him to come into her restaurant, and he does, miraculously. She prays again for him to find her when she changes jobs, and he does, miraculously. Jorgen consults the Lutheran Pastor, Andreas. His humble proposal to Julia is one of the high points of cinema and almost ranks up there with Jimmy Stewart’s admission of love in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.
The direction in ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS is charming. There are moments where the movie plays like a beautiful concert, and yet it is very humble and transparent. The acting, too, is wonderful. Each character makes an indelible impression on the viewer’s mind. The movie breaks from traditional storytelling a couple of times, but overall it contains the necessary dramatic structure to captivate the audience.
There are a few lightweight obscenities and profanities in this movie, but they are mild. Most of the immoral behavior, of which there is very little, is rebuked. There is one couple who clearly imply that they are about to fornicate at two points in the movie. It seems clear, though, that their relationship is going to be reformed by the faith of Pastor Andreas. He preaches Christ and believes in the presence and power of God. The movie shows the power and presence of God in the answers of prayer in clearly impossible situations except for divine intervention.
That a Dogme 95 filmmaker would make this movie is a miracle, but that it would be getting rave reviews and terrific box office around the world is nothing less than divine intervention. With a little help, ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS could send a lot of people back to church.
(CCC, BBB, Pa, LL, V, S, A, DD, M) Christian worldview emphasizes God’s presence, faith, love, & forgiveness, but story features non-Christian characters & some immoral behavior; 10 lightweight obscenities & two light profanities; dying woman in hospital scene, daughter turns up morphine drip on terminally ill mother & woman slaps boyfriend; fornication suggested twice, but not shown; no nudity; alcohol use; smoking & woman turns up morphine drip on her dying mother; and, lying rebuked, backbiting rebuked & prayer extolled in answer.
ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS opens with Pastor Andreas being shown around the Danish Church, where he will serve as the interim pastor. When Andreas preaches, there are only three people in the congregation, including the embittered former pastor, who has lost his faith. Andreas runs into a group of troubled people taking Italian lessons. One by one, he ministers to the alienated, the needy and the lost within his community. His love, compassion and preaching builds the church.
ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS is a life-affirming, sacramental movie on the order of the famous TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS. There are problems which are painful and intense, but the Pastor’s faith and compassion seems to overcome all of these obstacles. The direction in ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS is superb. There are moments where the movie plays like a beautiful concert, and yet at all times it is very humble and transparent. The acting, too, is wonderful. There are a few lightweight obscenities and profanities in this movie, but they are mild. Most of the immoral behavior, of which there is very little, is rebuked. In fact, ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS explicitly shows the power and presence of God.