What better way to learn the Italian language than some good old Netflix and Chill?
Whoa, whoa, whoa! Don’t get the wrong idea.
I didn’t mean we’d be doing anything… um, romantic.
I meant that you can learn Italian by literally watching Netflix and chilling in your sweatpants.
The beauty of Italian is that it’s dynamic and fun, with a rich artistic culture.
All that comes to life on the big screen—as well as on the small screens of your laptop, tablet and smartphone.
Whether you opt to delve into Italian music, magnificent Italian films or even the vibrant Italian YouTube community, even the pickiest learners can find an aspect of modern Italian culture to complement their learning.
There’s so much more to Italian study time than textbooks for learning and apps for Italian on the go. That being said, you certainly can download Netflix as an app to your iPhone, Android or other devices.
Let’s a take a look at exactly how you can blend Netflix into your study time.
How to Get the Most Out of Italian Movies on Netflix
Using Italian movies is one of the most effective—and the most fun!—ways to improve your Italian.
It exposes you to the real language as spoken by natives. While movies are scripted, they tend to use language that’s less formal (and more commonly-used) than the Italian language a learner is exposed to in a course or textbook.
Italian movies can also help you pick up slang, tune in to the fast pace of the language and get acquainted with the many dialects of Italian.
To use Italian movies to help you improve your Italian, I recommend following this simple, three-step strategy. This process allows you to really, truly understand every scene in any Italian movie you discover on Netflix, and it’s even able to improve your Italian speaking, reading and listening skills all at once.
Step One: Watch in Italian with English Subtitles
When you first watch an Italian movie on Netflix, turn on those English subtitles.
This first step might feel like a no-brainer, but some will argue against ever using English subtitles for support. The only caveat is that you shouldn’t expect the subtitles to be perfectly accurate or literal translations of what’s being said. With that in mind, you can use English subtitles to your educational advantage.
You may be tempted to not have any subtitles at all, but having English subtitles allows you to get familiar with the movie and the language while having a thorough understanding of what’s going on.
So, start with the first scene (or choose a favorite scene if you know the movie already), turn on those English subtitles and follow along. Jot down any unfamiliar or useful phrases that you might not have heard before, but don’t go totally crazy with this. The purpose of watching with English subtitles in this step is primarily to understand the movie itself.
Don’t worry, because in a second we’re going to rewind and watch that scene again!
Step Two: Watch Again in Italian with Italian Subtitles
Rewind to the beginning of the scene you just watched with English subtitles.
Now I want you to switch on the Italian subtitles. By this time, you should be familiar with what exactly is going on in this scene. This time around, you can focus fully on the Italian language being used.
Make sure to keep your notebook and pen handy in case you stumble upon more words and phrases that you don’t know or that you’d like to remember for later Italian conversations.
Step Three: Watch Again in Italian Without Subtitles
Rewind one more time and turn those subtitles off!
By this time, you should be able to recite the entire movie scene without even the help of Netflix.
Watching the scene a third time without subtitles should help you to solidify the new words and phrases you picked up on the first two watches, and you’ll be surprised to discover that the scene you initially watched—you know, the one that seemed like a jumble of random Italian sounds—is now perfectly understandable to you!
Furthermore, as time goes on, you may not even need this three-step process at all. Feel free to skip step one and even step two as your Italian skills advance and you become an Italian Netflix connoisseur.
The 10 Best Italian Movies on Netflix
Now that we know how to watch Italian films, it’s time to pop some popcorn, power up your laptop and pick one of the best films available on Netflix!
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And now, check out our awesome recommendations for you.
The first film on our list is called “Suburra,” an Italian neo-noir crime film based on the novel by Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo De Cataldo.
The story centers around organized crime and Italian politics, following an Italian member of parliament who gets tied up in a prostitute’s murder. Intense, dramatic and at times dark, the film shows the main character trying to keep the death under wraps to stop it from ruining his family life, career and reputation. Talk about drama!
This film stars the very talented Italian actor Pierfrancesco Favino, and it’s perfect for those wanting to master conversational or political Italian. Italy is often a country known for its intense political drama, so this film is a great dramatization of some of the most controversial happenings in Italian politics in recent times. (Don’t believe me? Google “Berlusconi.”)
But that’s not all! If you like “Suburra,” there’s more to watch. Netflix has produced an original TV series by the same name, so you can watch the “Suburra” TV series in Italian too!
“Io sono l’amore” (“I Am Love”)
Returning to the present day, “Io sono l’amore” (I Am Love) is great for two reasons: it stars English actress Tilda Swinton, and surprisingly, Swinton speaks excellent Italian throughout!
The film follows Swinton as a woman who has left her native Russia to become the wife of an Italian man and is now the matriarch of a very posh Italian family in Milan. Despite the servants, fancy dinners and great relationships with other influential Milanese families, as expected, not everything is as great as it seems for this family. In fact, Swinton’s character develops an illicit relationship with a chef, and drama ensues. Talk about scandal!
This film is great for Italian learners because it focuses on the wealthy elite. Okay, that sounds a little odd, but hear me out. Contrary to films that focus on the Italian middle class, this movie allows learners to see language used by the Italian elite. These differences could be very useful if a learner is ever in a situation where they have to speak Italian with the utmost formality. Get out the suits and Versace dresses!
“Terraferma” (“Dry Land”)
This dramatic 2011 film features beautiful cinematography, powerful acting and an insightful glimpse into a complex socio-political situation—one that’s still being faced in Italy and far beyond.
The Sicilian government informs its citizens, particularly sailors, fishermen and all else who sail out to sea, that they must not aid illegal immigrants who are traveling to Europe from North Africa. By transporting them in any way, they’ll be inculcated in the crime of illegal immigration.
In the face of this threat, a fisherman living on the Sicilian island of Linosa does what he believes is right to save lives, and inadvertently ends up caught between morality and legality.
“Benvenuto Presidente!” (“Welcome Mr. President”)
Like getting a dose of the political without it becoming too heavy? Here’s a great politically-themed comedy.
A small town man becomes entangled in the corrupt and intense world of Italian politics and, as you can imagine, some impassioned speeches and hi-jinks ensue.
“Il conformista” (“The Conformist”)
This classic Italian drama from 1970 was directed by cinema legend Bernardo Bertolucci, a name you’ll be familiar with if you took Film 101 in your freshman year of college.
The artistic nature of the film makes the plot slightly challenging to follow—keep your eyes peeled for flashbacks which illustrate the background to “present day” events of the film.
Here, you’ll follow loads of emotional twists and turns through fascism, secret police, forbidden love, attempts at achieving normalcy, honeymoons with ulterior motives and more. The drama just doesn’t stop.
It’s an interesting choice for Italian students who want to hear a variety of Italian from middle class, upper class and religious scenarios. It’s also quite indulgent for anyone who loves attention to detail, artistic decorations and fabulous architecture.
“Il capitale umano” (“Human Capital”)
Now we’re on to a newer selection from 2013, but we’re still entrenched in the world of Italian drama. If you’ve already watched “Il conformista,” this is a nice next step, since you’ll find yet another scrambled timeline that avoids going totally chronological—be prepared to see the past, present and future get ever-artfully intertwined, in that oh-so-Italian way.
This is about families from different socioeconomic classes and the ways they interact, clash and blend. There’s ambition, greed, love, passion, power—and there are almost always strings attached.
This is a fun watch for any student of Italian thanks to the huge cast. You’ll get to hear Italian used by a lot of different native speakers in different walks of life, in different situations and with different linguistic influences.
This is a little bit of a vanity choice on my part, so I apologize in advance.
If you’re a fan of documentaries like I am (I love documentaries), then “Palio” is for you.
The name of the film comes from the name of an event in Siena, actually fully titled Palio di Siena, a horse race in Italy that’s the longest-running horse race in the world. The main subject of the documentary is a man named Giovanni, an up-and-coming rider rising through the rankings to become a top contender in the competition.
While it is a documentary, the tension in this movie is high. Better yet, this film is unique because it actually offers learners an opportunity to experience Italian spoken in real-life situations, since a large amount of the film is unscripted and its interviews are genuine.
“La vita è bella” (“Life Is Beautiful”)
And what do you know? It’s another Italian cinema classic with a side of tear-jerking!
“La vita è bella” (“Life Is Beautiful”) is an oldie from 1997, but it’s easily one of the best Italian movies out there. It follows Guido, a Jewish man who finds himself and his family (including young son) in a Nazi internment camp in the Second World War. While the entire ordeal is horrifying, Guido employs his imagination to help his family, particularly his son, cope with their horrifying situation.
While this film can be heavy at times, Guido’s imaginary world does have its funny and sweet moments. This film isn’t only great for improving your Italian, as it also offers a glimpse of the political climate in Italy prior to and during World War II.
“Gianni e le donne” (“The Salt of Life”)
Getting a little bit goofier now, “Gianni e le donne“—translated literally as “Gianni and the Women” but titled “The Salt of Life” in the English version—is a hilarious ride!
While this movie is missing Italian subtitles (meaning you’ll have to skip step one of our Netflix-watching movie process), this film is quite literally comedic gold. “Gianni e le donne“ follows a man named Gianni as he enters retirement. Life should be simple and relaxing for Gianni after a long life of work, but it’s anything but.
Firstly, his mother still treats him like he’s a 5-year-old child. His wife doesn’t bother to spend time with him, leading to a tumultuous relationship. His daughter’s partner is a loser.
Needless to say, Gianni needs something to look forward to in his golden years. Or should I say someone? Gianni decides to spend his retirement trying to fall in love again, leading to really funny—and awkward—situations.
While watching this film, learners will find that it’s quite useful for learning everyday vocabulary and common conversational conventions. They also might stumble on a few instances of language differences between the young and the elderly, as is common with any language.
“La grande bellezza” (“The Great Beauty”)
If you haven’t yet watched this masterpiece, power up your laptop and sign into your Netflix account right this instant. While unfortunately this flick has recently become unavailable for streaming, you can add this one to your Netflix DVD queue.
This Italian comedy-drama became an instant classic and won the award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards back in 2014.
The film follows an elderly man named Jep who was once a famous and revered writer, now trying to find his place in the retirement world. The story focuses on his past experiences in life, relationships and love, as well as the fact that he ultimately feels that he has wasted his life. The film is a great mixture of feel-good, sad, hilarious and depressing, and you’ll definitely need a Kleenex or two throughout. It’s truly Italian cinema at its finest.
In addition to the fantastic film itself, the full soundtrack for this movie is jam-packed with quality Italian music you can stream or download, sing along to and use to learn even more Italian.
Geez, with all these Italian films so readily available, I don’t even want to wait for a rainy day!
I may just go on a Netflix binge tonight.
Follow suit—select a film and enjoy!
Michael Cristiano is a Canadian writer and language enthusiast. His latest ramblings on foreign languages and language learning can be found on his YouTube channel, The Polyglot Files.
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