-By Eric Monder

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On the surface, writer-director Lone Scherfig's third film, Italian for Beginners, resembles many of the other Dogma films, but its effect is much more sweet than bitter. The story takes place in a small Copenhagen town, where a young, widowed minister Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen) arrives to fill in for an elderly pastor. While acclimating himself, Andreas befriends Olympia (Anette Stovelbaek), a pastry chef who cares for her cantankerous father. Andreas takes up residence at a hotel managed by the shy Jorgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler), who secretly loves the Italian cook Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen), who secretly loves him back.

Both Jorgen and Andreas have their hair cut by the local hairdresser, Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen), who turns out (in a surprise plot twist) to be Olympia's sister. Karen, who takes care of her sick mother, is attracted to the egotistical restaurant manager, Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund). When Hal-Finn fills in as professor of an Italian-language studies class, Karen, Olympia, Andreas, Jorgen and Giulia all sign up as much to learn Italian as to socialize with one another. After Karen and Olympia's parents die around the same time, the sisters decide to use their inheritance to fund a class trip to Italy. While in Venice, the romantic feelings within the group finally take over.

Italian for Beginners arrived as this year's Dogma film at the New York Film Festival, but unlike more controversial past entries (from Julien Donkey-Boy to The Idiots), Scherfig's production aims strictly to please. Yes, the cinematography mimics cinema verit, the production values are minimal, and there is no offscreen source music, but Italian for Beginners, in most other ways, is a romantic comedy on the order of If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium or French Kiss. (One could even imagine Meg Ryan appearing in the Hollywood remake.)

Happily, Scherfig keeps the attack of the cutes at bay, and allows the dry Nordic humor to dominate over the precious contrivances. The cast makes the roundelay engaging, even though Hal-Finn's evolution from male chauvinist to romantic hero seems less than convincing (and we still don't want the lovely Karen to end up with him). But to the film's credit, Olympia's clumsiness is played out for genuine poignancy rather than easy screwball laughs.

Italian for Beginners may end up a footnote to the Dogma movement history books, but it's a most pleasant little addendum.

--Eric Monder

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