Intermediate Italian

The Son’s Room

Italian for Beginners

Seduction is the oldest art. In movies–still a relatively young art–sadness is often the seducer, but frequently its methods are crude. We’re easily mesmerized when the movie paints a portrait of youth, happiness, and unconcern, and easily crushed when it all is destroyed by cruel, early death. The whole effect often seems cynically calculated, yet we usually take the bait. We cry the tears we are meant to cry, but when the movie ends we feel a little bit dirty, used, and guilty for our own complicity. Being called a “tearjerker” is every bit as derogatory and defiling as it sounds–a director’s ham-handed manipulation of an audience in a darkened theater. It’s a risk that every sad movie runs.

The Son’s Room is a very sad movie about a family that loses a son and then must cope with the loss (its title and premise evoke the multi-Oscar-nominated In the Bedroom). The movie has no shortage of weeping, of breakdowns, of relationships pushed to the brink by the force of the tragedy. This is the stuff tearjerkers are made of, and yet all of it is done equably, and with a mercifully skilled, light hand.

In terms of tone, the film is a departure for Italian director Nanni Moretti. Until now, he has not been well-known in the United States, where critics have compared him to Woody Allen; the comparison has some basis. Like Woody, Nanni is an auteur-actor who methodically works through his neuroses and predilections on-screen. He, too, is enamored of old movies and his hometown, both of which have supporting roles in his films. In Palombella Rossa (1989), Moretti plays a confused left-wing politician who slowly articulates his concerns about Italy’s crumbling Communist Party during the course of an absurdist water polo match that is routinely interrupted by scenes from Doctor Zhivago. The deservedly better-known Caro Diario (1994) is a film in three chapters, the first of which is a love letter to the various neighborhoods of Rome that Moretti tours on his Vespa. The second part is a visit to three Italian islands with his friend, a Joyce scholar, as Moretti tries to find peace and quiet to work on writing his next movie. He fails utterly, and his friend goes mad for lack of TV and the inability to monitor the progress of The Bold and the Beautiful. The last chapter is a reworking of Moretti’s own medical battle that begins with an itch that won’t go away and leads to the diagnosis of Hodgkin’s disease. He eventually beats the disease, but the story is told with a heavy dosage of black comedy. Moretti relives his dealings with a gaggle of contradictory, over-prescribing physicians, and the movie ends with him in a café surrounded by a startling array of useless pharmacopoeia, ordering a glass of water. Caro Diario is a beautiful film and typical Moretti: desultory, self-effacing, romantic, absurd, political, and bitingly funny.

The Son’s Room, however, is both more conventional and more mature filmmaking. The non-sequiturs are gone and the episodic non-plot has also been abandoned. Moretti plays Giovanni, a psychologist who is dedicated to his work and whose patients are devoted to him. His stunning wife, Paola, played by Laura Morante, works in publishing. Along with their two charming teenaged children they eat meals as a family, tease each other, sing in the car. Life is not perfect–the son, Andrea, has been accused of stealing something at school, and Giovanni is weary with some of his patients–but life is good.

And then Andrea dies in a scuba diving accident, and the world comes undone. Giovanni is tortured by what might have been. If only he hadn’t dutifully gone off to see one of his desperate, pathetic patients who called him away from breakfast, he would have taken a walk with Andrea; his son wouldn’t have gone diving. The recriminations are here, but Moretti does not reduce his characters to caricatures of grief. Giovanni goes to investigate the diving equipment that Andrea used, certain there must have been some defect. A less skillful movie would have made him a delusional crusader, alienating his wife and daughter until the family dissolves and he is left a broken man. The Son’s Room is more subtle; the sadness and rage come in waves, as do the characters’ weak moments. When Paola discovers that Andrea had a nascent relationship with a girl at summer camp, her desperation to meet the girl is inappropriate, uncomfortable for all around her, but utterly convincing. Here Moretti is interested in a family’s experience of grief, and how this breaks down into individual agony that strains all familiar bonds.

The movie’s gesture towards happiness, when it comes at last, is a delicate and tentative one–one that does not pretend to erase what has come before it. At some point In the Bedroom ceases to be a movie about grieving and becomes a thriller of revenge. The Son’s Room does not make this shift, does not abandon the more difficult narrative of grief unfolding without some violent catharsis more cinematic than probable. It is the stronger movie for it.

The twelfth film to embrace the strictures of the Dogma 95 manifesto (a self-consciously dogmatic purity test devised by four Danish filmmakers in 1995), Lone Scherfig’s Italian for Beginners takes place in a smallish, seemingly suburban Danish town. Although we don’t get much of a feel for what the place looks like out-of-doors (maybe this is a reasonable take on Danish life in winter), one senses that the place is unremarkable. Indoors, too, this is a land of overweening beige. From church to classroom to restaurant, any sharp contrast has been sanded down to an unpresuming color wheel of halftones.

The characters proliferate in these beige interiors and it’s not clear who is meant to hold our attention most. There’s Andreas, the young minister who’s come to town to do a bit of substitute shepherding for a bitter, aging minister on suspension. And Olympia, the ditzy, klutzy, blonde who lives at home with her tyrannical old father and spends her days fumbling pastries at the local bakery. And Jørgen Mortensen, who works at the hotel and is invariably referred to by his full name, even by his friends (one can only assume that the town is awash with Jørgens). His best friend, Halvfinn is a handsome hothead who berates the customers at the sports restaurant where he waits tables. Karen is a lonely hair stylist with a dying mother. And Giulia is Halvfinn’s feisty but pious Italian-born coworker. All of them, for their own reasons, are drawn to an evening Italian class given in a lecture hall of a local college.

We meet the characters, and then we meet their burdens. The large, kindly Jørgen Mortensen suffers from what he terms a “sports injury” to his libido. He needs the love of a good woman, a woman who doesn’t intimidate him. Both Karen and Olympia have a dying parent, and more in common than they know. Halvfinn is an orphan, we are told, which apparently explains his tantrums at the restaurant. Giulia is pining for the love of Jørgen Mortensen. Andreas has lost his wife to schizophrenia and suicide, but he just might be ready to love again.

It would probably be a mistake to delve too deeply into these people’s psyches; the film certainly doesn’t bother. It sets each character up with a problem, a little nugget of sadness, and suggests a solution: amore.

If the problems aren’t particularly nuanced, this is perhaps forgivable–we aren’t going to get much nuance with six characters. What’s lacking here–and deviates from the divine laws of romantic comedy–is the single, standard plot device that allows us to pretend that we didn’t already know exactly what would happen when we saw the trailer two months ago: namely, the lovers’ doomed struggles against their own better instincts. Certainly, the deep and soulful stud muffin should discover that he really does love the brainy girl next door (who looks amazing without her glasses!) more than the ice-veined cheerleader. By all means, the sexy new girl in town should realize that she really has fallen for the tender science geek and not the cruel, conceited Team Captain. We all know that true love must prevail, but shouldn’t the lovers have to waver in their faith? Doesn’t movie-love require a crisis point? The conclusion may be forgone, but you can’t just forego the whole argument, can you?

Only if you have a little more to say than the airy Italian for Beginners. Everyone in the film who is meant to fall in love falls for the right person at first sight. The couples halfheartedly circle each other a bit, and one twosome has a mini row, but this does little more than spice up their sex life; the pairings are never in peril. That whooshing sound you hear is dramatic tension leaving the theater.

This is harmless stuff, and there are a few good laughs. The point, I suppose, is how Italian lessons serve as the vitalizing force in these Danes’ lives. What their drab interiors lack, and what the deaths of their loved ones removes, Italian class supplies. This formulation comes dangerously close to a tired climactic theory of culture–a Mediterranean vs. Scandinavian cliché. Fortunately, Scherfig avoids falling entirely into that trap. Giulia is not an Italian earth mother come to breathe life into a pack of dull Danes too afraid to live. Halvfinn, for one, has plenty of fire in his belly to begin with. The language itself excites these characters, as does the exercise of learning, of doing something forward-looking with their lives.

Mostly, though, Italian is just an excuse to get them to fall in love and then ship them off to Venice on a class trip. There, as they are ferried on their gondolas to the accompanying strains of live accordion music (in compliance with Dogma Rule #2), color finally enters the picture. The blues of the canal, the rich dark hues of a restaurant’s interior, the stones in the street, the light in their faces… it must be love.

Jesse Lichtenstein has worked in movie production and written about online film for The New Republic.

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Published at 12:00 am CST