When a movie has been stripped to its basics, the "guts" of the picture — its story and characters — have to be pretty compelling.

So far that's been a problem for adherents to the Dogme '95 manifesto, a no-frills approach that has led some up-and-coming filmmakers to eschew the gimmicks so many others have used to cover up sketchy material.

While the use of naturalistic sound and picture has been refreshing, the story construction and characterizations have been lacking in many Dogme selections. Fortunately, that doesn't hold true for "Italian for Beginners."

This warm and gentle romantic comedy has enough interesting characters to fill several movies, and its ample charms should win over the most hard-hearted cynics (this in spite of a few unfortunate, R-rated moments).

The film's title refers to an Italian-language class that's being taught in a small Danish community. The most recent student to join the class is Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen, from "Mifune"), a recently widowed minister who is temporarily "filling in" for the town's disgraced holy man.

Unfortunately for Andreas and the handful of others, the class seems doomed, since there are too few students and the instructor unexpectedly passes away. But they're reluctant to let it be canceled since it's been a way for the students to make significant social introductions.

Shy, clumsy pastry-shop employee Olympia (Anette Stovelbaek) can't seem to get in more than two words with the new kind-hearted clergyman. But the class gives them something to discuss.

Her sister Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen) and hot-tempered restaurant manager Halvfinn (Lars Kaalund) are flirting heavily, and Jorgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler) finds he needs the language lessons to converse with beautiful Italian waitress Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen).

Though there are a lot of characters to work with here, writer/director Lone Scherfig develops each of them nicely, and her wry screenplay is filled with several small moments that sneak up on you.

The film's progression from heavy drama to character-driven comedy is well done (among the best of the low bits are scenes in which the former pastor "heckles" Andreas).

But it still might have been for naught without this cast, which is very appealing. While Berthelsen and Stovelbaek are essentially the leads, Gantzler, as the self-effacing hotel manager, steals the show.

"Italian for Beginners" is rated R for scattered use of strong, sex-related profanity and use of crude slang terms, as well as scenes of simulated sex acts and sexual contact. Running time: 99 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com