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Comfort Zone

Warming up to Italian for Beginners; swatting the pesky Dragonfly.

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The Danish film Italian For Beginners is the first project filmed under the Dogme imprimatur to be directed by a woman (Lone Scherfig), and while I'm reluctant to point to the gender of its creator as the sole reason it's so different from other Dogme films, you have to wonder.

Dogme, for those who don't know, derives from a manifesto on film style written by the great Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier (he of pre-Dogme films such as Breaking the Waves and The Kingdom) about a half-dozen years ago. Von Trier, with tongue at least partially in cheek, dubbed his manifesto a "vow of chastity" -- a method of filmmaking that uses only handheld video, is shot on location, contains no non-diagetic sound (i.e., no sound that doesn't emerge from an on-screen source), and follows other rules of cinematic purity.

But the catch to this return to basics is that most previous Dogme films -- von Trier's Dancer in the Dark and The Idiots, Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration, Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey Boy -- in their insistence on purging the cinema of artificiality wind up reaching for extreme situations and extreme emotions. By comparison, Italian For Beginners is realistically mundane. It's a modest romantic comedy whose minor charms have nothing to do with the stylistic or philosophical structure that Dogme provides. Whereas other Danish films to wash up on these shores have been rather chilly, Italian For Beginners is notably warm and humanistic. The only real benefit provided by the Dogme style is an intimate feel that makes the film stand out when compared to slicker American romantic comedies, and that achievement could have easily been duplicated without conforming to the strictures of Dogme.

Italian For Beginners looks in on six youngish adults whose lives intertwine in Copenhagen over the course of a few months, the relationships coalescing around an introductory Italian class. At the center of the film's story is a young, recently-widowed minister, Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen), who is filling in for a suspended neighborhood pastor. Andreas lives at a hotel managed by Jorgen (Peter Gantzler), a kind, nervous man who has been celibate for years. Jorgen is a friend of the overbearing Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund), who manages a sports bar owned by the hotel. Jorgen is also smitten with the restaurant's lovely Italian cook Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen). Hal-Finn likewise develops a crush on the neighborhood hairdresser Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen), an autumn-haired beauty struggling with her belligerent, alcoholic mother. Andreas is pulled into the Italian class by Jorgen, where he meets Olympia (Anette Stovelbaek), a clumsy bakery-shop clerk caring for her sick father. And Olympia and Karen end up being connected in ways they don't initially understand.

The basic theme of Italian For Beginners --though "theme" seems a little weighty for a film so modest and naturalistic -- is of family members passing and those left behind forming new families by choice. It's a film about how a group of friends first come together -- like a Danish prequel to Return of the Secaucus Seven (or, if you must, The Big Chill). There's also a notable subtext here of Mediterranean passions infiltrating the chilly north and Giulia's bubbly response to Jorgen's reserved affection.

Generous of spirit but short on visual, verbal, or narrative fireworks, Italian For Beginners doesn't reach the heights that von Trier frequently scales, but it's a comfortable, likable little film that shows admirable respect and affection for its characters. It may not seem like much while you're watching it, but afterward the feeling of having spent time with a real community populated by real friends might linger. -- Chris Herrington

In Dragonfly, Kevin Costner, as angry widower Joe Darrow, is put through the works. He is mocked for his bald spot by a kid, shunned by a nun, manhandled by security guards, threatened with a gun, trapped in a waterlogged bus, and grabbed by a corpse. The audience, however, is not so moved.

Joe is a doctor whose wife Emily (Susanna Thompson) was also a doctor. She went to Venezuela on a humanitarian mission. Joe, arguing that it was too risky given her pregnancy, did not want her to go. But she went and she died and her body was never found. So Joe is back at the hospital, pissed off at being alone and acting harshly against anyone in his path.

Because of his foul mood, Joe is asked to take some time off from work. He agrees but first he must do the one thing that Emily requested: check in on her patients in the children's oncology ward. It's there that Joe encounters a young boy flatlined but seemingly talking to him. When the boy is revived, he shows the doctor a wiggly cross. On to the next patient, another boy dead and brought back, with the same cross. And when Joe returns to his empty house, he is besieged by dragonflies, his wife's totem. Even Joe's parrot is trying to tell him something. Is Emily alive?

There's intrigue, sure, but consider Dragonfly dead on arrival. Its elements -- the sick kids, the crosses, the parrot -- add up to a rather muffled drama. You can blame Costner, for starters. He's definitely angry as Joe, but he never seems to absorb what a truly frightening experience he's stepped into. If he can't get into it, after all, why should we? Plus, with its surprise-ending twist, a faux-spiritual, corny flourish that is also vaguely insulting to South American natives, Dragonfly comes off as more than disappointing -- it's unnecessary.

Along for the ride is former Memphian Kathy Bates as Joe's neighbor, good listener, and lawyer. Even she can't make the case for Dragonfly. -- Susan Ellis

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