‘Italian for Beginners’ shows what’s amore

A substitute pastor is heckled during his sermon by the man he is replacing, a priest suspended after pushing the organist off the balcony during an argument concerning the “accentuation of a hymn.” But, when the substitute confronts the offending pastor, their common bonds of loss and dubious faith are revealed. This is the kind of beautifully textured plot point common to director Lone Scherfig’s “Italian for Beginners,” a poignant, delightful and ultimately heartwarming Danish film which ends Images Cinema’s recent track record of sub-par offerings. The film plays twice every evening, once at 7 p.m. and again at 9:15 p.m., through Thursday.

Set in a Danish town, the film follows six characters whose lonely and tragic lives bring them together in an Italian class. There is the substitute pastor, Andreas (Anders W. Berthelen), a kind gentleman and a wonderful listener, who deals over the course of the film with the recent death of his wife. He befriends Olympia (Anette Stovelbaek), a clumsy young woman who works in a bakery and is controlled by her sick and bitter father. Olympia fantasizes about meeting her long-lost Italian mother and decides to learn Italian so she can speak to her when their reunion finally comes to pass.

Andreas also becomes friends with Jorgen (Peter Gantzler), a naive hotel receptionist who has suffered from impotence for four years since a soccer mishap injured him. Jorgen is keeping his eye on Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen), a pretty Italian waitress. Jorgen wishes to overcome both the language barrier between them and his personal social obstacles.

Halvfinn (Lars Kaalund) is Jorgen’s friend who manages a sports restaurant, and who lacks the ability to treat his customers with any respect. When Halvfinn’s long hair begins to annoy him, he goes to get it cut by Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen), who is dealing with the pain of watching her mother die.

Through an intricate series of connections and amazing discoveries, these six characters find their way into the Italian class offered by the local community center and eventually to Venice on a “class field trip.” Along the way, each character is tested with the tragedy of loss or death, and they each overcome personal obstacles and fall in love.

For these characters, learning Italian is not just something to pass the time – these people treat their Italian class as a window into another world. More than a means to cultural status, they recognize Italian as infinitely more romantic, poetic and magical than their native Danish language. It matters little to these students that they are learning merely how to order a hotel room or a beer, among other trite phrases. More than anything, learning Italian makes them feel happy and special, and these feelings are infectious to the audience.

The six characters were all convincingly portrayed. Kaalund negotiated the difficult path of maintaining his character’s generosity while showing his tendency to be a total jerk. Jensen was delightful as the Italian waitress, as was Gantzler as her persistent suitor.

Stovelbaek and Jorgensen were both successful in taking the audience on the difficult emotional journeys of their characters in the short amount of screen time allotted to them. Berthelen provided the heart of the film with his portrayal of Andreas, creating an imperfect yet extremely endearing pastor, who is first and foremost a wonderful person.

For some reason, the run-time of the film is approximately 15 minutes shorter than the time listed by Images (112 minutes), so either the listing is incorrect or the projectionist forgot to play a reel at the Sunday night screening. In either event, the ending of the film did seem somewhat rushed, but that may be only because it is the kind of film that one doesn’t really want to end. Spending two hours with characters this real and likeable can never be enough.

“Italian for Beginners” is one of those special films which chooses not to advertise its uniqueness through fancy cinematography or overbearing music. It’s a remarkably disarming character study of ordinary people attempting to lead extraordinary lives. The film represents Images at its best, and this is not to be missed by College or Williamstown resident movie fans.

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