We gave it a C
The Dogma 95 manifesto, with its opening-shot-of-the-movie certificate of purity (Lars von Trier must have been giggling into his sleeve over that one), was issued as a collective challenge to the corruption of Hollywood. Implicitly, it asked mainstream filmmakers, Would you dare to scrape away the mucky gloss of technique — to be this free of artifice, this true? That said, there’s a challenge that Dogma filmmakers pose to themselves: Having pared their tools down to the essentials (handheld video, organic sounds only, please), can they live up to the atmosphere they so fetishistically create? The Dogma aesthetic doesn’t just attack artifice; it also exposes it.
Italian for Beginners is, in essence, a Danish Nora Ephron movie in Dogma drag, and the result is even more precious than it is tedious. The director, Lone Scherfig, makes nods to contemporary angst, serving up such characters as an impotent middle-aged failure, an insecure young pastor (he’s like a cuddly version of Ingmar Bergman’s faith-doubting hero in ”Winter Light”), and a pair of melancholy half-sisters who learn that they’re related only after their raspy horror of a mother dies. These and several other singles show up at the same night-school Italian class, and the way that they become friends seems less a function of temperament than of lazy filmmaking; it’s lonelyhearts-community kitsch.
”Italian for Beginners” is a cloying series of oh-so-tentative flirtations that feature more sparkly eye contact than you’d find at an Osmond family reunion. For every sad impotent man, it seems, there’s an Italian babe who will fall for him (for reasons we don’t begin to discern). To see this much austere vérité atmosphere propping up this much schlock romanticism is like biting into a blue-cheese canapé that turns out to be a fluffernutter.