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Italian for Beginners in dialog with Ecclesiastes

April 21st, 2005 by Jason · 1 Comment

It is not uncommon to hear a film or critic or avid movie watcher say that a certain film was molded too much by the “Hollywood style” to have any real merit. “Hollywood style” conveys the idea of a movie full of glitz, glamor, special effects, and a predictable feel-good plot. Such a movie may fit the Hollywood formula for success but it often fails to capture the viewer with the power of a story told well. Dogme 95 is a group of Danish filmmakers who decided to eschew many of these Hollywood “essentials” of movie making with the goal of making movies that, in their simplicity and rawness, “force the truth out of [their] characters and settings.”1 Italian for Beginners is the 12th official Dogme 95 film and the first Dogme 95 film to be written and directed by a woman, Lone Scherfig. In many ways it put Dogme films on the map with movie watchers at large since it was quite popular and a Silver Bear winner. As a Dogme film it captures well the idea that life is “comedic and melancholy”2 at the same time. As such, it is well-suited to be put in dialog with Ecclesiastes; a book that simultaneously recognizes life’s tragedy and fragile beauty.

Italian for Beginners begins abruptly and with no introductory credits. The opening scene is of Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen), a temporary pastor for a dying church, being shown around his new parish. We soon begin to learn the stories of a web of seemingly unconnected characters, all of whom are living in modern-day Copenhagen. There is Halvfinn (Lars Kaalund), a bitingly sarcastic restaurant owner. His waitress is Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen), a young Italian woman with hopes that Jorgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler) will notice her. However, Jorgen is too concerned with his impotency of four years to take much notice. We also learn of Olympia (Anette Stovelbaek) a sweet, but clumsy, young woman who is taking care of her vitriolic old father. Capping off our six main characters is Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen) a hairdresser who is struggling to know how best to care for her alcoholic and dying mother.

We soon discover that what will bind this motley of characters together is an Italian class for beginners. Each character stumbles into the class, not so much to learn Italian, as to find friends and intimacy. Hence, it is this deeper thematic bond of loneliness and loss that binds the characters together and draws them to the class. I observed yet another example of meaninglessness in our world. This is the case of a man who is all alone, without a child or a brother… (Ecc. 4:7-8a).3 Andreas is struggling with the loss of his wife who died six months prior due to her schizophrenia. He posits while preparing for a sermon that “it is in loneliness that God seems furthest away,” but seeks to retain his fragile faith by concluding “that when you put an arm around someone you love, God is in every movement.” However, the viewer is left wondering which is true: his sermon or the reality we watch as he breaks down and cries at the end of the scene, alone in his hotel room. Andreas is not the only lonely one; when he asks Olympia and Karen, on separate occasions after losing loved ones, “Do you have anyone you can talk to tonight?” they both respond “No, I’m used to being alone.” Giulia and Jorgen are both looking for a relationship, but are struggling to find it because of their shyness. Even the cinematography enforces the loneliness that the characters feel. The skies are bleak and gray, they are often in rooms by themselves, and even when they are in Italian class together the eight students sit spread out in the large room.

The picture gets bleaker before it gets better. Many of the characters are also striving to keep their heads above water as they get beaten down with one tragic loss after another. Andreas’ wife had a stronger faith in God than he, and yet she was overtaken by mental illness. Olympia is constantly dropping things (later we learn this is due to her fetal alcohol syndrome) and because of her clumsiness is on her 47th job. With her meager earnings she is supporting herself and her self-centered cruel father. He berates her for dropping things, demands that she wait on him hand and foot, and calls her idea of taking an Italian class the “stupidest f****** thing he’s ever heard.” Yet, when she finds him dead on the couch one day she still feels the pang of loss. Meanwhile, Karen has an alcoholic mother who cuttingly calls Karen a prostitute for cutting other people’s hair. Even as the mother is on the verge of death she seeks to manipulate Karen into turning up her morphine, insisting that she won’t tell Karen a secret if she won’t increase her dosage. Karen finally turns up the morphine in order to lessen her mother’s pain, but then must suffer the blow of having her mother die from too much morphine. Even Halvfinn who tears down others with his razor sharp tongue suffers several losses: he is an orphan, loses his beloved restaurant, and seems most impacted when the Italian teacher dies from a heart attack. Additionally, we feel sorry for the lovable Jorgen Mortensen who has lost the ability to get an erection, and embarrassingly admits to Halvfinn and Andreas that it has been over four years since he has slept with a woman.

The dual themes of loss and loneliness thus provide a window into the heart of the movie’s meaning and power. The problems of the characters, alcoholism, euthanasia, impotence, loneliness, and death are not glossed over or sentimentalized; rather they are captured in their rawness and complexity. These problems underscore the atmosphere against which the movie is set: the messiness of life. We are given a picture of the underbelly of life where good people suffer unjustly and loss is compounded by the tragedy of death and the bleakness of life. Again I observed all the oppression that takes place in our world. I saw the tears of the oppressed, with no one to comfort them. The oppressors have great power, and the victims are helpless. So I concluded that the dead are better off than the living (Ecc. 4:1-2). Yet, this is not the end of the movie. As Scherfig says in an interview about the film "everything I think is horrible and sad in the world is in this film. And then the film becomes quite funny.”4

After 80 minutes of watching the characters struggle with life we are given 10 minutes of resolution in blue-skied Venice. After learning that she has come into money after her father dies, Olympia decides to take her Italian class to Venice. In that magical town of canals and warbling gondola drivers the characters find intimacy and love. They do not undergo any monumental changes, but their small transformations begin to give us hope that there is some sweetness and goodness in life after all. Andreas and Olympia begin a relationship and are even able to find humor in some of life’s pain (specifically Olympia’s clumsiness). Halvfinn finally overcomes his fierce individualism and apologizes to Karen for talking badly about her mother. Finally, we rejoice as Jorgen stammers out his love for Giulia in Danish, even though he thinks she can’t understand him, and she accepts his marriage proposal. A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer (Ecc. 4:12). The movie ends not with answers on how to avoid or fix the problem of life’s loss, loneliness, and amorality, but it does capture the magic and goodness of love and friendship in the midst of life’s tragedy and rawness. So go ahead. Eat your food and drink your wine with a happy heart, for God approves of this! .... Live happily with the woman you love through all the meaningless days of life that God has given you in this world (Ecc. 9:7,9).

One could criticize the film’s ending for being too formulaic in that it fits with what typically happens in a romantic comedy. However, while critics pointed out this failing the fact is that for viewers the ending worked. It captures their experience that life cannot be painted all black or white, rather life is both despairing and hopeful, full of loss and full of love, and that in the end we hope against hope that love will win out.

While the ending works for audiences we can still ask what it is that drives this otherwise slow-moving film and gives it its meaning and power. Certainly the theme of the movie, “Is there hope for happiness and love in life given its messiness?,” captures the viewer because the question transcends the small band of Copenhagen residents and touches each of us. Furthermore, the characters of the film are given life by the Dogme style of the movie. Because it looks like a home video we quickly become convinced that we are being given a glimpse into the lives of real people. The lack of music leads us to focus on the dialog and the story of each character. Thus, as the characters develop we become more invested in their hopes and fears. The theme’s ability to resonate with us and our vicarious identification with the characters drive the movie forward.

In addition to character development we might also ask how else the Dogme style contributes to the meaning and power of the movie. In many ways the Dogme style could detract from a viewer’s experience of the movie. The lack of music means there is not much of an aural component. The slightly shaky camera can make it difficult to concentrate on what is happening in the scene. However, Scherfig is able to masterfully use these elements to underscore the theme and atmosphere of the movie. Because the Dogme 95 manifesto states that 35mm film must be used, the images are grainier and less polished than a normal movie. However, this adds a “hyperreal” element to the film that, in a sense, forces the viewer to acknowledge the bleakness and tragedy of reality. While music cannot be overlayed onto a Dogme movie, it can be used if it naturally occurs where the filming is taking place. Thus, after a movie of noticeable silence, besides the dialog, Scherfig ends the movie in Venice “not for the beauty of the city, which she knew would look faded and trashy through her lens, but for the sound of the canals.”5 Nonetheless, even though Venice does look faded, the contrast between the cramped rooms and bleak skies of Copenhagen and the expansive blue skies and grand canals of Venice is so noticeable that it heightens our sense of relief and joy at seeing the class finally reach their destination.

Having identified the center of power and meaning of the movie we can now put it in dialog with Qohelet, the preacher of Ecclesiastes. However, we must first ask “How does one put make film and Scripture dialog partners, without distorting either of them?” This question is heightened by the fact that Scherfig was surprised that some see the message of the film as essentially Christian. “Religion, she points out, does not actually help anyone in the film; when it comes to the crunch, they either learn to live with their problems or solve them.”6 So, we must rightly ask how we are to put a movie that is not consciously Christian and is written and directed by someone for whom religion “is not a big part of [her] life”7 into dialog with Scripture. First, we must acknowledge that we are not looking for a comprehensive Christian message in any film, but are rather looking to see if it can illuminate a specific theme or message from Scripture or, conversely, if a specific portion of Scripture can help us better understand the movie. Second, the reality of the Kingdom of God aids us in understanding how we are to find truth and goodness in something which is consciously non-Christian. The Kingdom of God is God’s full rule and reign upon the earth. It was inaugurated by Christ, but it has not come in full. It includes the church, but it is bigger than the church. Thus, wherever there is healing, or beauty exposed, or truth preached, the Kingdom of God is being made manifest. It is our job as Christians to proclaim the Kingdom of God by identifying it and making known its King. So, when we see a film, even if made by a non-Christian, which captures truth, goodness, or beauty we can say that the Kingdom of God is at work. This does not mean we need never critique a film for working against, rather than illuminating, the Kingdom of God, but it does give us theological justification for seeing God at work in the larger culture.

We can now ask “How can Italian for Beginners be set in dialog with Scripture, specifically Ecclesiastes?” Qohelet, the preacher of Ecclesiastes, has three main themes to which he returns over and over: “Death is our common fate…. We cannot know what we are to do…. Life lacks any discernible moral order.”8 Italian for Beginners touches on all these themes. Andreas’ wife, the Italian teacher, Karen’s mother, and Olympia’s father all die. The movie does not give death a pretty face but rather gives us forceful images of its ugliness and tragedy. For humans and animals both breath the same air, and both die…. How meaningless! (Ecc. 3:19). There are several ethical decisions characters must make where it is not clear what is the best course of action. Should Jorgen obey his boss and fire his best friend, Halvfinn? Should Karen ease her mother’s pain by increasing her morphine, but thus killing her, or allow her last hours to be filled with suffering? Indeed, these characters know there is a moral compass by which to to order their lives, but it is often impossible for them to discern just where the compass is pointing! [God] has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end (Ecc. 3:11). Lastly, the movie is replete with the theme of the amorality of life – its seeming lack of a moral order. Andreas struggles not only with the fact that his wife died, but that she died despite her deep faith in God. Karen and Olympia’s aspirations are continually torn down by their cruel parents. Life is anything but rosy for any of these characters, and the best of them seem to get the shortest end of the stick. In short, much of life is raw, tragic, and lonely for these characters. I devoted myself to search for understanding and to explore by wisdom everything being done in the world. I soon discovered that God has dealt a tragic existence to the human race (Ecc. 1:13).

Like Qohelet, who is anything but an atheist despite his skepticism, the messiness of life does not cause these characters to deny God. The atheist of the movie is the pastor whom Andreas replaces. We discover that after the former pastor lost his wife he also lost his faith and now bitterly proclaims “God is just a concept.” Yet, by the end of the movie the church is again full, faith is beginning to flourish, and several of the characters are present in the service. Jorgen’s faltering prayers about impotency and Giulia’s prayers for a husband are answered. Yet, it is not God’s ability to answer prayer that is at the center of the movie’s spirituality. Life is too harsh and too many questions are left unanswered for that to be a satisfying answer. Rather, like Qohelet, the characters find grace. Life, despite its messiness, refuses to be painted as being completely “red in tooth and claw.” Bubbling up through the toughness of the life is the last ten minutes of the movie where friendship, laughter, intimacy, and love are given to all of the characters. Like the movie Qohelet affirms that much of life is “meaningless, like chasing the wind” (Ecc. 2:26) and his observations of the darkness of life comprise the majority of his book. Yet, in his observing of life he also cannot deny that there is a goodness and beauty in the simple pleasures of life that should be enjoyed, even relished. Six times he affirms that we should take pleasure in our food and drink, enjoy our work, and live happily with our loved ones for “this pleasure is from the hand of God” (Ecc. 3:24).

Italian for Beginners, then, captures well with film what Qohelet observed in Ecclesiastes several millenia ago: even in life’s amorality, death, and mystery there are simple pleasures which are a gift given from God. Indeed, even the trip to Venice is an unexpected gift that comes about when Olympia discovers she has inherited a large sum of money. I would even argue that the film takes on a life of its own and, despite Scherfig’s assertion that the characters solve their own problems, the fragile goodness captured at the end of the movie comes as a gift, not as the result of any of the character’s ability to produce happiness on their own.

Italian for Beginners grabs our hearts because it is about people who are real enough to be our neighbors, or us. It grabs our gut by capturing life’s polar opposites with powerful images of death and lovemaking. And it holds the attention of our eye because its rough, Dogme style is fresh and interesting to observe. At the heart of the movie is the age-old exploration of how we are to walk the tightrope of life, holding both the tragedy of the world and the exquisite sweetness of life in hand without letting either blind us to the existence of the other.

1Lars von Trier & Thomas Vinterberg, “The Vow of Chastity,” March 13, 1995,

2Quoted in Paula Nechak, “Danish Romance a Hollywood-style Affair,” February 1, 2002,

3All Scripture verses are taken from the New Living Translation.

4Quoted in Stephanie Bunbury, “Lessons in Life – and Dogme,”June 16, 2002,




8Robert K. Johnston, Useless Beauty (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004), 172-173.

Tags: pop culture · theology

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Allan // Feb 19, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    my name is Allan. I made this website to share information’s that I found after deep research with everybody who loves Venice or Italy or want to learn Italian language fast.
    I spent a lot of working hours researching the Internet to find required information about Venice, Italy and especially to find some good, quick and easy way to learn Italian language. Everything started when I decided to visit Venice – my beauty. First of all I told to my friends and family about my decision and I also asked them to recommend me some good language course. I received almost same answers “… ah … it’s difficult … you will lose time and money … you have to learn at least 2 years to speak well … if you want to learn go to community college … ” … so I did that way. I signed up to very expensive community college and started course with night classes, because of my work. After few weeks I still didn’t know anything, I thought that I am not capable of that. The teacher kept going on and on about the basics but we did not work on vocabulary. After a whole month of going to the class, I still couldn’t even say basic phrases. I’m usually a quick learner but this school was total failure for me – confidence & money & time waster.