Filmgoers familiar with the aesthetic of Dogme 95 will find the new entry, Italian for Beginners, a surprise--pleasant or unpleasant, depending on their proclivities. Taken on its own terms, the film is fresh, emotionally full and direct, funny, poignantly generous of spirit, charming and crowd-pleasing, without seeming really compromised or unduly sentimental. But the more rigorous partisans of Dogme 95 are likely to view the movie as a bad sign.
Like the definitive cinematic movements of post-World War II film history, from the French "New Wave" to the "New German Cinema" and beyond, Dogme 95 arose from a critical, even revolutionary, spirit. In fact, the conception and evolution of this movement appear to simulate the features of previous ones fairly exactly. Like the New Wave, Dogme 95--an international but predominantly Danish movement--originates with a scornful rejection of the currents of mainstream cinema (and even deliberately echoes the language of the New Wave in its own manifesto). Just as pioneers of the New Wave like Francois Truffaut or Jean Luc Godard chastised the staid, backward "Tradition of Quality" in French film, so Lars Von Trier, the best-known spokesperson of Dogme 95, vilifies both the Hollywood blockbuster mindset and the old-fashioned European art-film sensibility. The New Wave claimed patron saints from the French film heritage like Jean Renoir or Max Ophuls, much as Dogme 95 invokes the great Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer in many of its productions. Both movements gained international reputations via film festival culture, before becoming fixtures on the art-house circuit.
In its postmodern bravado, at once blithe and severe, Dogme 95 is a virtual parody of a cinematic movement. Conjuring the austerity stereotypically associated with Danish culture, the movement requires its followers to take a "Vow of Chastity" in the filmmaking process: no artificial light in shooting, no soundtrack music, no gimmicks, no special effects or lab effects, no directorial credit--in fact, no film. The "manifesto" of Dogme 95 requires movies to be shot in a manner that all but dictates the use of digital video with handheld cameras (despite an odd caveat that the film format must be "Academy 35mm"). This aesthetic is meant to promote greater artistic honesty through the denial of selfhood, and its requirements, despite their tongue-in-cheek undertones, are so stringent, so self-consciously dogmatic, that only one of Von Trier's own films, 1998's The Idiots, has made the cut. In all, only 25 films have received the official imprimatur of the movement.
Most of the films associated with the movement, in one way or another, have taken asceticism--as an idea, an event, or a way of life, imposed or elected--as their themes. The main character of Von Trier's Breaking the Waves, after her husband has met with a paralyzing accident, gratifies him by prostituting herself: sexual dissolution as a form of self-denial, or self-sacrifice. Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration concerns the revelation of sexual abuse at a family reunion, and a backlash against the son who exposed the secret, by family members who think he should have kept it to himself: self-denial as piety or faith, self-revelation as betrayal or salvation. A movie like Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey Boy seems to want to eschew, though not to transcend, such themes, but can only conceive of doing so by emptying itself out, in a series of passive-aggressive stylistic gestures: exhibitionism as redemptive asceticism.
The main plot conceit of Italian for Beginners concerns a group of lower-middle-class people in Denmark who come together to take Italian lessons at an adult-education community center. One, a pastor temporarily replacing the permanent pastor who is undergoing a crisis of faith, can't get his congregants into church. Another is a baker dealing with elderly, cantankerous divorced parents. A pair of students are unlikely friends associated with a "sports restaurant" where they whimsically mistreat their customers. We see glimpses of the quietly unfulfilling daily lives of these characters; their attitudes toward this unfulfillment cannot be called endurance, since they don't expect to be happy. We see them come together, watch them movingly persevere, appreciate their gently treated foibles, hope that things will turn out all right for them, and are pleased and glad when, for the most part, things do. The movie's complex sweetness--complex because at times the film seems rather bleak--is tonic: It's closer to the News from Lake Wobegon than to the spirit of Carl Dreyer.
Italian for Beginners incorporates the stylistic signatures of Dogme 95--blunt, edgy rhythms, sudden zooms or pans, intense close-ups--but the director, Lone Scherfig, employs them less obtrusively than most of her colleagues in the movement. On the whole, these directors seek a style that combines two aesthetic features often held to be incompatible: emotional directness, and a high degree of self-consciousness. Scherfig undoubtedly achieves the former. She fashions scenes with convulsive rhythms that linger on quiet moments and truncate climactic ones. With unassuming intensity, she reveals her characters in repose, seemingly because she's afraid of what will happen to them if they act. In the hands of someone like Von Trier, the Dogme style generates powerful emotion, including intense sympathy with some characters, but it usually feels, as a style, agitated, restless, relentless, unforgiving, scorching, and never gentle.
In the last few minutes of her film, in a gesture of airy expansiveness, Scherfig spirits her characters off to Venice. The first shot of this last sequence shows a sun-drenched canal under an impossibly blue sky, with music--and it's breathtaking. For a moment the film looks a little like an ordinary movie, and the turn seems, not compromised, but inspired--a casual insertion of postcard beauty that sets the raw aesthetic of the movement as a whole into breezy relief. It makes this style seem more elastic, less restrictive or punitive or repressive, and by contrast, more powerful in its characteristic effects.
Scherfig isn't cheating: The music turns out to be, not appended in post-production, but coming from an accordion we see onscreen a few shots later. Yet it's clear that she wants to loosen up the dogma, to use this severe and flagellant style she's working in to lavish warm affection on the people whose stories she's dedicated to telling.
After a triumphant, adventurous decade, the French New Wave all but came to an end around 1968--when, among other things, Godard accused Truffaut of selling out. Truffaut furiously retorted that he wanted to reach an audience. Who can blame him? Italian for Beginners is already a considerable hit; this comes as no surprise, since it is so sweet, so interestingly hopeful, and flittingly optimistic. In the long run, it may mark a dire turning point in the mainstreaming of Dogme 95--but, like many of Truffaut's late films, it's one lovely sellout.