Though the Dogme 95 movement caused something of a stir in the film community at the time, the films made under its banner were, to put it mildly, a bit downbeat. Only Lone Scherfig's Italian for Beginners (2002) could lift the fog. Scherfig had a talent for presenting depressing characters in a lighthearted way, and still managed to resolve everyone's problems by the end of the film.
Her film was a Hollywood ensemble comedy wrapped up in an enjoyable, intelligent art house package. As a result, it grossed over $4 million; the second highest grossing film in the series was The Celebration (1998), which made just over $1 million. None of the rest even made it that far. Working within the Dogme manifesto required Scherfig to follow ten specific rules, which included not making a period piece or genre film, using only props found on the set, using only natural sound (music must emanate naturally from the set), using hand-held cameras, natural light, no special effects, etc. The idea was that the rules would restore "truth" to cinema.
The action takes place in a peculiar little town. The town square has been dug up by tractors and awaits some kind of renovation. A naked man has been seen running around at night, causing all kinds of commotion; in the daylight, every man is suspected. A local advice hotline becomes the center of activity as the town leaders encourage the naked man to call and confess. Of course, there's a newcomer in town (Ann Eleanora Jørgensen), an escapee from a strict religious camp, and though Scherfig uses her in the film's first scene, she doesn't necessarily rely on this character to introduce us to everyone and everything. Her film unfolds naturally, more like a day-in-the-life piece.
Each character has some kind of uniquely bizarre trait, such as the pompous town scholar (Peter Hesse Overgaard) who gives lectures and collects plates, or the grizzled, angry orphan (Peter Gantzler) who thinks he's addicted to pills (it's really baby aspirin), or the bubble-headed, good-hearted blonde. A gentlemen's outfitter gives clothes to people on credit (which never gets paid), and a woman hand-carves pipes for people who don't smoke. A gaggle of nurses giggles and gazes at the local doctor. And eventually, the leaders of the religious cult -- which drinks water to squelch sexual desire -- turn up to re-capture the lost member of their flock. Most Hollywood films establish easy-to-define personality traits like these and stick with them to the very end, until they can be "solved." Scherfig uses hers as a comic launching point, and then allows the characters to grow from within.
Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who rose to fame with the Dogme films, bestows upon the film a truly unique look, using colorful flares, smears and reflections across many shots; it may come across like some ruined footage mistakenly made its way into the final cut. Some characters appear to be speaking to one another as if through windows. In one scene, a man visits his sister in the hospital and a portrait of their mother is juxtaposed over the scene, underlining their shared, horrible childhood. This method adds a slightly foggy effect to the film, making everything appear dreamlike; edges and solidity begin to fade away, just as Scherfig's plot does.
However, the naked man concept eventually rules the film. Each character's life is affected by his nocturnal streaking. Some join the telephone help line so that it can operate 24 hours a day, and these characters begin spending time together and listening to everyone's troubles. The workers on the town square, tired of receiving accusing glances, go on strike until the streaker is caught. The town official in charge of catching him loses her job.
The "streaker" plot eventually leads to a typically big and bawdy climax, set at a public gathering, which will please connoisseurs of lightweight art-house fare like The Full Monty. But then that climax also gives way to a smaller, more satisfying ending. Basically Scherfig is like the Dutch answer to Nora Ephron, except funnier, riskier, more intelligent, more talented and with more than one good film to offer.