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Language Lessons 

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Peripheral characters drop like mayflies in Italian for Beginners, but the Danish movie is not a murder mystery. Although drug addiction and madness are also part of the equation, this is a gentle screwball comedy that never dwells too long on its own sense of melancholy. Writer-director Lone Scherfig's picture -- with Middle-bury College screenings at 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday in Dana Auditorium -- suggests ordinary people are exceedingly bizarre and become even more so when love is involved.

Shot in the spare style called "Dogme 95," the video production uses only available light, no soundtrack music, hand-held cameras and actual locations rather than constructed sets. The action takes place in a drab Copenhagen suburb, so it's a recipe for realism. The plot, however, follows a kind of fantasy logic.

Andreas, portrayed by Anders W. Berthelsen, is a young pastor temporarily replacing an older cleric who has gone off the deep end. Turns out both men are recent widowers -- the first of several odd coincidences. The church serves a community dominated by a sports stadium and its adjacent restaurant, where Jorgen works with the ill-tempered Finn. These roles are inhabited by Peter Ganzler and Lars Kaalund, respectively.

The terribly shy Jorgen is smitten with Giulia, an Italian cook played by Sara Indrio Jensen. Macho Finn falls into lust with the owner of a local hair salon, Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen, who bears a passing resemblance to Frances McDormand). She takes care of her nasty, morphine-addled mother, much as bakery clerk Olympia (Anette Stovelbaek) must tend to her equally unpleasant father. When the two nightmarish parental figures suddenly die within a few days of each other, the surviving daughters discover a secret about their common birthright.

Meanwhile, these confused folks all attend night school to study Italian. The course is taught by a man named -- what else? -- Marcello, who suffers a fatal heart attack in front of the class. As in HBO's "Six Feet Under," death often seems a whole lot easier than a messy life.

Thanks to Shakespeare's Hamlet, Danes are famous for their brooding. While almost everyone in the ensemble is frozen by self-doubt, Scherfig reveals their funnier foibles without ever trivializing genuine anguish. She is the first female filmmaker to emerge from the Dogme pack, which has created work as bleak as Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves and as bittersweet as Soren Kragh-Jacobsen's Mifune. For Scherfig, the Italian classes provide Mediter-ranean warmth that balances the Scandinavian cool of her cinematic lonely-hearts club.

The 8th Montreal Jewish Film Festival begins this Thursday and -- skipping Friday for religious reasons -- ends a week later. Some of the selections are enticing: Yellow Asphalt, from Israel, encompasses three vignettes about a Bedouin tribe of the Judean Desert. Mama-drama: The Jewish Mother in Cinema is a documentary on how these ethnic matriarchs have been depicted on the big screen. Set in 1942, Monsieur Batignole concerns a decent Frenchman whose son-in-law becomes a collaborator during the Nazi occupation. For more information, call 1-514-283-4826, or check http://www.mjff.qc.ca. Guess what: A Mighty Wind is opening nationwide Friday. Check showtimes on page 54A. Yippee!

Last week's announcement that Merrill Jarvis will reopen a renovated Nickelodeon on May 23 had some people scratching their heads about what he plans to call the downtown Burlington venue: The Roxy. But this is a moniker with historic significance.

In 1927 impresario Samuel L. Roth-apfel -- nicknamed Roxy -- built a movie palace at the corner of 50th Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. Heralded as "the cathedral of the motion picture," the $10 million theater had Gothic-style windows, statuary, rose-and-gold murals, an orchestra pit and 6214 velvet-covered seats.

The Roxy's opening night drew celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Gloria Swanson -- star of the feature that premiered, The Love of Sunya. This silent film centers on a yogi who, recognizing two people he wronged in an earlier incarnation, warns them of their fate this time around. Surely, it's long overdue for a Hollywood remake.

Rothapfel went on to become one of John D. Rockefeller's partners -- Roxy and Rocky -- in constructing the similarly splendiferous Radio City Music Hall in 1929. In fact, the high-kicking Rockettes were initially known as the Roxyettes.

Although Jarvis has promised to install new drapes, sound systems, carpets and state-of-the-art chairs that rock, it's doubtful there will be any Merrillettes dancing at the Queen City's Roxy.

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