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Lone Scherfig's Italian for Beginners (review)

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 83, Number 3, Fall 2011
pp. 455-458 | 10.1353/scd.2011.0014

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Mette Hjort's masterful analysis of Lone Scherfig's 2000 film Italian for Beginners is a welcome addition to the scholarly literature on contemporary Danish film and the Dogma film movement. Scherfig's remarkably popular film dramatically extended the relatively short reach of the Dogma films from their reified perch as challenging art films into the popular realm, and solidified Scherfig as one of Denmark's leading filmmakers. Her position as a woman in a male-dominated field of film production—even in the progressive sphere of Nordic film—is one of the leitmotifs that runs throughout Hjort's work. She explores Scherfig's position in the Nordic film landscape as both a woman and a member of the Dogma group, considering this question already in a section in the first chapter, "Women and Film in Small Nations" (15-25). By situating this discussion of women in the context of the challenges of film production in small nations such as Denmark, Hjort is able to develop a critical stance that provides her significant opportunity to interrogate the ever-changing role of women in Danish artistic production. Hjort, however, does not make this consideration a focal point of her study. Instead, she provides a sophisticated and nuanced series of readings of the film that takes into account not only Scherfig's own background and her artistic oeuvre, but also considers aspects of production within the confines of the Dogma rules and, importantly, the reception of the film both critically and publically.

Hjort mentions early on in her study David Bordwell's defense of a certain approach to film criticism that he characterizes as "middle-level research" (xiii). This type of criticism avers grand theoretical narratives, such as Marxism, psychoanalysis, or semiotics, and instead focuses on coupling the analysis of film to examinations of context, style, and practice (xiii). Hjort maintains this accessible position throughout her work, focusing predominantly on what she calls "practitioners' agency." For her, "practitioners' agency" extends far beyond the agency of the director, as in auteur studies, and includes the agency of the other members on the production team, as well as the actors and actresses. By extending her approach to include reception, Hjort is able to produce an accessible, sophisticated, and substantive investigation of this important film.

The film, generally classified as a romantic comedy, tells the story of six interconnected characters who are brought together in an Italian language class led by the unlikely cafeteria worker Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund), who inherits the unexpected role of Italian teacher after the sudden death of the original teacher. The tightly intertwined cast of characters includes a recently widowed minister, a bakery assistant, a hairdresser, a recently fired hotel manager, and a young Italian immigrant, along with a small cadre of supporting characters, many of them the parents of the main characters. Hjort cleverly avoids getting sucked into a plot analysis in her book, focusing instead on the complexities and challenges confronting Scherfig as she wove this complex story line not only against the challenges set by the Dogma rules, but also by the challenges she set for herself in the making of the film.

Hjort's emphasis on practitioners' agency informs the structure of the book. In the first chapter, "Lone Scherfig: The Person, The Oeuvre," Hjort flirts a bit with the auteur-centered biography that often accompanies the study of the director-as-auteur. Her explorations of Scherfig's background as a member of the cultural elite (her father's uncle was the famous Danish author Hans Scherfig, her mother a principal at the Royal Danish Ballet School, her father the chairman of the board of the conservative newspaper Berlingske Tidende, and so on) are interesting as a backdrop for Hjort's subsequent discussion of Scherfig's motivations as a filmmaker. Hjort does not get bogged down in the minutia of the filmmaker's early life and possible influences. Instead, the remainder of the chapter helps Hjort situate Scherfig not only in the broader context of women filmmakers and small state filmmakers, but also in the context of the Dogma movement, the Danish filmby in Avedøre, and contemporary Danish film and television. Hjort also describes in...

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