When the Dogme 95 movement was unveiled with Thomas Vinterberg's superb The Celebration, the Danish collective's schoolmarmish tenets—use only handheld cameras, real locations, natural light, production sound, and so on—seemed designed to encourage a powerful, stripped-down realism. A dozen "official" Dogme (and numerous Dogme-inspired) films later, the rules have been applied so arbitrarily that it's hard to fathom what the founders might have intended, outside of a bold publicity stunt. Whatever their reasons, they've been rendered meaningless. If 1999's Mifune inched the movement a little closer to convention, Dogme 12: Italian For Beginners, a mild romantic comedy about single lonely-hearts in a Copenhagen suburb, goes all the way. Sweet-natured and likable to a fault, the film studiously avoids confronting the darker themes of death and religion that bubble up from its story, no matter how central they are to the characters' lives. The title refers to an Italian course at the local community college where mostly thirtysomething singles gather to meet each other and escape their everyday dreariness. As the class progresses, six of them gradually pair off into couples: Anders Berthelsen, the recently widowed replacement for the fired church pastor, and Anette Støvelbaek, a clumsy pastry-shop assistant; Ann Eleonora Jørgensen, a hairdresser with a terminally sick and demanding mother, and Lars Kaalund, a rude waiter at a sports-themed restaurant; and Peter Gantzler, a despairing middle-aged hotel manager, and Sara Indrio Jensen, a beautiful and much younger Italian waitress. The specter of death hangs over the proceedings like the black plague, affecting the immediate families of at least three characters, but their grief seems oddly weightless, shaken off like a common cold. At least partially aware of this absurdity, writer-director Lone Scherfig makes a running joke out of Berthelsen presiding over mixed-up funeral ceremonies. Perhaps Scherfig intended a sly parody of Danish cinema, which has been mired in heavy philosophical and religious themes since Carl Dreyer, but it doesn't come across amid the trifling relationships. Berthelsen's wavering faith gets so little attention that he could just as well swap occupations with any of his friends. For a romantic comedy, Italian For Beginners fulfills the basic requirement of having well-sketched characters that are pleasant and worthy of each other. But outside of placing a greater emphasis on the actors, the Dogme style looks more like a pointless affectation than ever, limiting what could be done with better lighting, photography, sound, and production design. What was once hailed as a return to back-to-basics filmmaking now seems just plain regressive.
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