Its films have taken home more Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film than those of any other country, and throughout film history Italian directors have thrown around an outsized weight in various stylistic movements, especially when it comes to neorealism.
Whether you’re learning Italian in order to get closer to this art form—or just to enjoy some good conversation, a trip to the peninsula, literature and great podcasts—you must watch some Italian movies.
Doing so will of course help you learn new vocabulary in context, and it will also provide motivation and suggest new areas for study. And there’s nothing like trying to figure out the nuances of a tantalizing joke or subplot to carry you into queries for your next study session.
This post will suggest some of the most fun and approachable films for Italian learners, but first we’ll look at a few suggestions for how to take them on.
Strategies for Learning Italian from Movies
If you want to maximize the educational mileage that you get from the films you watch, here are a few things to keep in mind.
1. Get some context before watching. It can be fun to just dive into a story and not know what’s coming, but if you want to make the most of the opportunity to learn Italian from a movie, it would be wise to have a basic idea of the plot before you watch. This way, you’re not struggling to know who’s doing what to whom and why.
Looking up the film on Italian Wikipedia is a great way to start, so you also get exposed to some of the principal vocabulary that will be used in the film, and have a chance to look up important new words beforehand.
2. If you can find the movie in Italian with Italian subtitles (i sottotitoli), this is ideal. Otherwise, subtitles in English are great—there’s some vocabulary that you’re not going to get if there are no subtitles at all, and it’s more motivating and educational if you’re able to stay involved with the dialogue of each scene.
3. Use your pause button! It’s fine to enjoy a film and just soak in the experience, but if you really want to get the most of it, take the time to stop and look up words and references as needed, and to even to go back and rewatch difficult scenes.
4. Don’t let the end of the film be the end of your learning experience. You can practice using the new words through flashcards, or, even better, in writing and conversation. One thing you can use the vocabulary to talk about is the movie itself. What did you think of it? Of the characters? What would you have done in their situations?
5. Use FluentU to provide additional context, discover new movies and further enhance your learning. FluentU’s Italian program features entertaining, real-world videos, interactive subtitles and lots of fun learning exercises.
For example, you can learn Italian using this clip from the movie “Life Is Beautiful,” watch Italian trailers for current and upcoming films, or browse through video content on other subjects that showcase Italian culture.
FluentU helps you get comfortable with everyday Italian by combining all the benefits of complete immersion and native-level conversations with interactive subtitles.
Tap on any word to instantly see an image, in-context definition, example sentences and other videos in which the word is used.
Access a complete interactive transcript of every video under the Dialogue tab, and review words and phrases with convenient audio clips under Vocab.
Once you've watched a video, you can use FluentU's quizzes to actively practice all the vocabulary in that video. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.
FluentU will even keep track of all the Italian words you’ve learned to recommend videos and ask you questions based on what you already know.
Plus, it'll tell you exactly when it's time for review. Now that's a 100% personalized experience!
The best part? You can try FluentU for free!
Start using FluentU on the website, or better yet, download the app from iTunes or the Google Play store.
Il Cinema Italiano: 17 Classic Italian Movies That Mesmerize and Amaze
1. “Totò, Peppino e la malafemmina“ (“Toto, Peppino, and the Hussy”)
This grand, silly classic of Italian cinema from 1956 is known to everyone on the peninsula and quoted all the time.
It concerns three brothers from the Neapolitan countryside. One of them, Lucia, goes to Naples to study medicine but falls in love with a dancer and moves with her to Milan. The story follows the other two brothers’ misadventures in the big city as they try to “save” their lovelorn sibling from the “bad” girl.
Its most famous line is from the grammatically flubbed letter that the brothers send to the woman, offering her money for her time (and to go away). Their goofy attempt at written Italian starts with “Signorina veniamo noi con questa mia addirvi una parola…“ (Miss, we come with this letter to say a word to you…). Italians quote this all the time to each other, especially when it seems that someone is attempting to make a too-serious speech.
2. “Non ci resta che piangere” (“Nothing Left to Do But Cry”)
Obviously, at first, they can’t really believe what has happened to them, but, once it sinks in, there are opportunities to meet Leonardo da Vinci, to attempt to stop Columbus and of course for romantic intrigue.
The film is more like a series of sketches than a completely integrated plot, which makes it easy for learners to approach in pieces. It includes an homage to the scene mentioned in the film recommendation above, in which the two travelers also attempt to compose a letter to a famous preacher, Girolamo Savonarola.
3. “I soliti ignoti” (“Big Deal on Madonna Street, Persons Unknown”)
This celebrated 1958 comedy was released under the former English title in the USA and the latter (more literal) translation in the UK.
It’s about a small group of petty criminals attempting to rob a pawnshop. Of course, one thing after another goes spectacularly wrong. In particular, there are two spinsters and a young maid living in the apartment next door, and the thieves must figure out a way to lure them all from the apartment at the moment that they wish to make the heist.
4. “I cento passi” (“One Hundred Steps”)
This mafia drama from 2000 tells the true story of Peppino Impastato, whose uncle, a mafia boss, was blown up by a car bomb when Peppino was a child.
As a young man, Peppino became a political activist who protested the expropriation of the land of small farmers by the government. Opposing the corrupt local government also meant opposing the mafia, which put him in a very dangerous position. He persevered, which means that things did not necessarily go well for him… though you should watch the movie to learn exactly why and how.
5. “Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo” (“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”)
This spaghetti western from 1966 was panned by critics at the time but has since established itself as a classic.
Note that the words in the title were flipped around in the English version—brutto means ugly and cattivo means bad.
The film was made with both famous Italian and American actors speaking their own languages, and dubbed versions were thus released in both languages. One learning strategy could be to flip back and forth and watch the scenes in both languages. The film takes place during the Civil War, and concerns three tough guys racing to find gold in a remote cemetery, amid a backdrop of general chaos and violence.
6. “Per un pugno di dollari” (“A Fistful of Dollars”)
In fact, it sparked the popularity of the spaghetti western genre. Here, Clint Eastwood is a gunfighter-for-hire in a town that’s being torn apart by a gang rivalry. Again, actors spoke their own languages and so the film was dubbed into both Italian and English for the final releases.
While “A Fistful of Dollars” was criticized for its violence and silly soundtrack, it was later recognized as the film that launched Clint Eastwood’s loner, anti-hero persona and visual style.
The film was quite successful in Italy and made him a star there, leading to the second in the trilogy, “Per qualche dollaro in più” (“For a Few Dollars More”)—which would be another good choice if you enjoyed this and my previous suggestion.
7. “La vita è bella” (“Life is Beautiful”)
This 1997 comic drama nabbed a few Academy Awards, including for best actor (for co-writer/director/star Roberto Benigni) and Best Foreign Language Film.
It tells the story of a Jewish bookseller who creates a series of games and imaginative stories to protect his children from their awful reality: a Nazi concentration camp.
8. “Nuovo Cinema Paradiso” (“Cinema Paradiso”)
Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 drama literally translates as New Paradise Cinema but was released as just Cinema Paradiso in English.
It’s an extended flashback into the life of film director Salvatore Di Vita, particularly as a boy discovering his love for film.
The projectionist becomes a father figure, letting the boy discover the joys of cinema from the projectionist’s booth. The film then follows Salvatore into his life as a projectionist, in military service and as a film director. Note that some of the Sicilian characters speak Sicilian rather than Italian, so don’t worry if you don’t understand them—most Italians would be reading the subtitles too!
In addition to parental love and the love of film, this movie looks at unrequited romantic love, and when it’s time to just “get on with one’s life.” It went on to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1989.
9. “La grande bellezza” (“The Great Beauty”)
This 2013 dramedy is also an Oscar-winner. It focuses on Jep Gambardella, a socialite in Rome who has just turned 65 and finally comes around to taking stock of his life.
The extravagance and absurdity of the Roman party scene that have been the muse for his columns over the decades no longer seem to hold as much appeal or meaning as they once did. This film is thus frequently compared to “La Dolce Vita,“ speaking of which…
10. “La Dolce Vita” (“The Sweet Life”)
Federico Fellini’s very famous 1960 masterpiece translates “the sweet life.”
Marcello, a tabloid journalist and socialite in Rome, is torn between the party scene and his domestic life with his girlfriend. The film is structured into seven “episodes” along with a prologue, intermission and epilogue. They recount Marcello’s quest for fun, love and happiness. He’s with women and friends, in parties and surrounded by drama—but nothing seems to be quite enough.
The film won an Oscar for best costumes, and as with many Fellini films, the clothes are outrageous. The character of Paparazzo also gave birth to the term paparazzi, which is now applied to tabloid celebrity photographers in languages around the world.
11. “Perfetti sconosciuti” (“Perfect Strangers”)
This 2016 comedy suggests that a lot of trouble could result. In it, seven friends—three couples and a recent divorcé—gather for dinner. One of the hosts proposes that they all put their cell phones on the table and then reveal the contents of any incoming communications. What starts as a joke becomes an unraveling of secrets, betrayals and misgivings about their relationships and lives.
12. “Il mio nome è Nessuno” (“My Name Is Nobody”)
An old gunslinger looks set to retire, but unfortunately his biggest fan, a lazy bum named Nobody, is conniving a last, great challenge for him. Why not face off with a 150-man gang known as the Wild Bunch in one great, last battle?
This comedy was released in 1973, by which point the spaghetti western was purely a parody of itself, and this film was thus intended to be the ultimate Italian western slapstick parody.
13. “La sconosciuta” (“The Unknown Woman”)
This 2006 psychological thriller was shortlisted for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and won a slew of awards at festivals.
It tells the story of Irena, a former prostitute on the run from a troubled past in Ukraine. She was the victim of abuse—but is on the run not just from that, but from what she may have done in response. She’s now attempting to make a life for herself in Italy, but the past is probably going to catch up with her somehow…
14. “Mediterraneo” (“Mediterranean”)
This box office and critical success won the 1991 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It was released in English under its Italian title, which, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, refers to the Mediterranean.
The film recounts the story of a group of inept, oddball Italian soldiers who were stationed on a small Greek island during World War II. While their preparations for defense of the island are more silly than militarily relevant, they do eventually begin to socialize with and even win over the local residents. Eventually relationships and bonds are developed.
15. “Non essere cattivo” (“Don’t Be Bad”)
This drama was Italy’s selection for the 2016 competition for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and it’s the third in a trilogy of films by Claudio Caligari.
It tells the story of two young twenty-somethings, Vittorio and Cesare, who are tight friends and live a life of fast cars, alcohol, drugs and other pleasures. Vittorio tries to correct his course a bit, and eventually tries to convince Cesare to attempt to turn his life around as well.
16. “Amarcord” (“I Remember”)
This 1973 Fellini dramedy is somewhat autobiographical, telling the story of growing up in a village in 1930s fascist Italy. The title is in dialect: It means “I remember.”
The film lampoons village life under the heavy thumb of Mussolini and the Catholic Church, especially the fantasies and the excesses of the weirdo inhabitants. The schoolteachers are particularly inept and ridiculous, and thus the children look for ways to escape or amuse themselves. There’s a number of surrealist flights of fancy presented as dream sequences.
The film came out when Fellini was already well into his storied career, and was met with both immediate and enduring acclaim from critics around the world. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1975.
17. “Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini” (“The Garden of the Finzi-Continis”)
Giorgio is Jewish, middle class and lucky enough to be a frequent guest to the luxurious walled-off gardens of the Finzi-Continis, who frequently host grand events and whose daughter, Micol, is the object of Giorgio’s affections.
Less fortunately, this is the late 1930s and the Italy outside the garden walls is increasingly hostile to Jews. Little by little that restrictive and violent world begins to close in on the idyllic world of the garden.
The film was released in 1970 and based on a celebrated novel by Giorgio Bassani. It went on to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and was nominated for an award for best screenplay.
If you make your way through these suggestions and are hungry for more great cinema to practice your language skills with, check out this IMDB page listing the most popular Italian films.
May your voyages in the language—and the peninsula—eventually be just as eventful (though hopefully not as trying) as those of the characters in the films that you’re watching.
Mose Hayward has been a vagabond writer for more than a decade. He wrote this post from Italy, where he is traveling and living out of the world’s most versatile wheeled carry-on backpack.
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