Do you know how to turn awesome Italian movies into weapons of mass instruction?
Well I’m about to show you—because movies can be an incredibly effective way to learn a language.
But you have to know how to approach a film in order to turn those gorgeous moving pictures into your trusty companion for learning the wonderful Italian language.
So let’s take a closer look at why movies are so useful, how to maximize your learning and then I’ll share movie recommendations that you don’t want miss!
Why Learn Italian with Movies: Language Learning Material on Steroids
Movies are multisensory and immersive
And guess what? Italian movies offer exactly that experience in spades.
We learn so much from what we see, and movies offer that visual context to language learning like nothing else can. You actually see language as it animates the interactions of characters in the film. You see the gestures as wielded by native speakers, the subtle nuances that makes the language so vivid.
Not only that, you actually get to hear exactly what Italian is supposed to sound like. You hear the melodious valleys and peaks of Italian twang and gain more appreciation of it.
And you hear all that—not in repetitive, laboratory-like conditions—but in the very authentic style of the movie where there’s an engaging story and characters go from one misadventure to another.
The first thing you learn when using movies is that the characters talk mighty fast. That’s normal, the movie is primarily intended for native speakers, not language learners. But that’s what immersion is supposed to feel like: training your ears, trying to get used to the language at the pace employed by its native speakers.
In essence, watching movies is really like sitting outside a café by the piazza, watching and listening to an unfolding story.
Movies are nuanced, diverse and flexible language learning tools
There’s this misconception that you only learn so little from the movies, if at all. There’s also the misconception (albeit a little better) that your learning will be limited to the genre of film you’re watching.
So if it’s a love story, you only get to know vocabulary pertaining to love and romance, and phrases that have something to do with plucking the stars from the evening sky and making a beautiful necklace out of them.
These are indeed misconceptions, and as we’ll soon find in the next section, there’s a way of actively watching films that allows you to mine and milk it for every language lesson the film contains.
In reality, with movies you have a pretty diverse set of contexts, topics and stories. Think about it, movies tackle subjects and genres that other learning material cannot even consider.
Regardless of its genre, an Italian movie is a treasure trove of language lessons. A single film can actually tackle many different fields. A single scene can contain vocabulary, phrases and expressions that will add more texture and nuance to your arsenal, and be brought into your daily conversations.
You only need to have the creativity or the insight to apply them to other situations.
There’s a correct way to watch a film for language learning. In the next section, we will look into the details so you’ll know exactly what to do when you’ve got an Italian classic in your hands.
How to Learn Italian with Movies: Top Tips and Techniques
The process outlined below is for milking full-length Italian movies for their language lessons. But if you like learning Italian through real-world videos, we highly recommend checking out FluentU as well!
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons, as you can see here:
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 with a 15-day trial.
Use the method below on Italian movies or any of the authentic clips on FluentU to maximize your learning!
How to milk the scenes
The first time you watch a film, don’t consider it a language lesson. It’s Friday night at the movies. Grab a bucket of popcorn and watch it like any Hollywood flick. Gawk at the beautiful actresses and be genuinely shocked by the twist and turns of the movie. Do this once or twice.
Around the third time you watch the film, that’s when you put your language learner hat on.
And the best thing you can do is to break the film down into manageable chunks. Working the whole movie as if it’s a single language lesson prevents you from milking all the gems contained in the film.
So break the movie into its component scenes. This allows you to devote focused attention to parts of the movie that have a limited number of players, a unifying theme, pivoting around a single thought.
A chase scene, for example, has a single purpose: Get away from the bad guys. A dinner scene, while it may involve many different topics, enables you to tie them all up in your mind and makes the lessons easier to remember.
And while watching each scene, don’t shy away from pressing those pause and replay buttons as many times as possible. Forget about the next scene or the story as a whole. You already know how the movie’s going to turn out. You’re there now for a totally different reason.
In each scene, look for things like mood, goal, conflict or situation. What’s the scene about? Is it a couple fighting? Is it two strangers eating at a restaurant? Is it about a witness being grilled in a court room?
Try to be conscious of these things because the flavor of the language that will be used—the type of vocabulary and expressions employed—depends very much on the function of the scene.
Make no mistake about it, and it will be very clear as soon as you dive in deep, the language used for each scene is very different. (Watch also for mood changes in the same scene, because you’ll be in for some shift in the language.)
This is very important because understanding what the scene is all about helps you find other real-life situations where you can apply the specific words and phrases you learn from that specific scene. If you understand what’s being said and why, you’ll be able to look for other instances that the phrase could fit.
A large part of learning the nuances of a language is to deduce the appropriateness of some word to many other instances.
How to mine the subtitles
As you begin to pay careful attention this third time you watch the film, use the subtitles for countless language lessons.
The sequence for watching with subtitles should be:
- English subtitles
- Italian subtitles
- No subtitles (cue standing ovation!)
Mine the English subtitles first for all they’re worth. Notice the correspondence between the English translation and the Italian delivery by the characters. Do you see and hear words that repeat and often crop up? Especially watch out for short lines in the dialogue where it’s relatively easier to spot the Italian words and their English counterparts.
Watch and listen for English and Italian cognates. These are word pairs that sound similar in both languages, suggesting a shared origin. They’re like word cousins that have the same word grandpa. These are words like familiare and “familiar,” which would make you exclaim, “Hey, these look familiar!”
There are plenty of English and Italian cognates, and you can learn many of them before you switch to the Italian subtitles.
When you switch to the native subtitles, this is where your learning goes to a whole new level. This is also where a lot of writing and researching comes in.
Remember that you’re actively watching the film, not just sitting back and grinning at the antics of Roberto Benigni.
By the way, be aware of how Italian spelling compares with Italian pronunciation. Fortunately, unlike French, Italian has practically no silent letters. So if you see it in the spelling, you’ll hear it when it’s spoken.
Have your paper and pen ready as you dissect a scene. The moment you see an interesting word in the subtitle, hit “pause” and write it down. Look for longer words that you suspect to be verbs, noun and adjectives. (The short words are usually connectives.) Try to have 10-12 words per scene.
After you finish a scene, head online to research the words you’ve written.
You can use Word Reference and play around their Italian-English and English-Italian sections. Their entries offer deep and nuanced insights into the words, with ample sentence examples for study.
After getting the meanings and usage examples, head back to the scene and watch it again. Do this for every scene in the movie and you’ll not only gain more insight into the language, you’ll also appreciate the movie’s writers even more.
How to mimic the sound
There comes a point, maybe somewhere around the fiftieth time you’ve watched a scene, when you can practically talk along with the film. You’ve got all the gestures down pat, and you can time the ebb and flow of conversation to perfection.
I encourage you to talk aloud as the characters talk.
It’s very important that you actually give voice to the Italian that is in your head and in your ears. You have to experience the feeling of actual Italian words coming out of your mouth, rolling off your tongue—imperfect as they may be.
Actually, you need to start talking aloud long before you become super familiar with the lines, when the honest learner in you knows that you’re going to mess it up anyway.
Read aloud even when you can barely keep up with the native speakers on the screen. It’s like humming to a song when you don’t actually know the lyrics. So what if the actors talk faster than you can read? Do it anyway.
It will be uncomfortable and awkward, but stay with it. I cannot stress this last point enough. There’s something so visceral with the experience of actually speaking; it solidifies your learning. Again, regardless of the mistakes that you’re bound to make. Do it even if you have to mimic or ape how the character gestures or moves, like a baby learning how to talk.
So read aloud what you can, and repeat until the break of dawn.
And when you’ve memorized the lines, close your eyes, say the lines and make your mama proud.
Why go through all this?
Because when deconstructing a film, there’s a real possibility that you might be content to just understand the lines spoken by the actors. You might think that’s the goal. Nope, that’s just a vital stop to an even more important destination: the ability to speak in Italian.
The danger is to master the movie and not the language.
So speak as much as you watch. If you’ve seen the scene ten times, you should also have read/spoken along with it just as many times. Just remember to do it when you’re alone—and definitely not during your flight to Milan. Trust me.
Next, why don’t we check out some of the titles that could be your next buds in learning Italian?
Learn Italian with Movies: 7 Essential Films for Italian Language Learners
1. “La Vita è Bella” (“Life Is Beautiful”) (1997)
This film won a spate of awards including Best Actor for Roberto Benigni at the 71st Academy Awards.
Set in the 1930s, it’s the story of a father protecting his son from the harsh reality of the Holocaust. Guido Orefice (Benigni), a simple Jewish bookshop owner, and his son, were taken to a concentration camp by German officers.
Guido somehow knew there was no good news to be had from the ordeal. In order to protect his 5-year-old son, he hatched an elaborate fiction telling the boy that they have entered some sort of reality show where they will undergo a series of tasks (like hiding from German guards) in order to win a real tank (to the utter delight of his boy).
The movie exhibits the length a father goes to protect his son from the inhumanity of it all. It has artfully teased out some Chaplin-esque comedic moments in the midst of misery.
Language learners will take a lot from the effusive Guido who not only talks non-stop but grandly gestures his words. You’ll remember the vocabulary and the catch phrases simply because there’s a highly kinesthetic actor flailing about with his hands.
And, despite being set in the ’30s, the film uses fairly contemporary Italian that you can work comfortably into daily Italian conversations.
2. “Malena” (2000)
Malena is a coming-of-age film set in 1940 Sicily. It tells the story of a 13-year-old boy who perpetually fantasizes about a beautiful school teacher, Malena, whose husband was called to war in Africa.
The effervescent Monica Belluci plays the role of a woman who sets gossip afire by simply walking around town going about her daily chores. She’s a shy wife pining for her husband while the whole town talks about her behind—er rather, behind her back.
Renato can’t get Malena off his mind and it’s fair warning to viewers that the film gets heated especially when the contents of the boy’s mind is portrayed.
While Malena barely speaks in this film, you’ll have your fill of period Italian through the lines and the vivid, engaging narrations of the lustful Renato, as well as the jealous town folks.
Who knew gossip would be such a fertile language material?
3. “L’Attesa” (“The Wait”) (2015)
Director: Piero Messina
Piero Messina’s directorial debut tells of a mother’s grief for her dead son.
Well, that’s a whole movie right there. But what if your son’s French girlfriend, who still doesn’t know her boyfriend is dead (but is wondering why he’s suddenly not answering his phone), shows at the doorstep of your Sicilian villa in order to spend Easter there, and you don’t tell her that her boyfriend is not coming, ever? Now that’s a great story to tell!
When I mentioned earlier that movies are immersive, this is one of those. The cinematography is beautifully executed—at times screaming, at times subtle.
The austere nature of the film makes for dialogues that are controlled and deliberate. The pace is oftentimes just right for language learners.
And if you need language learning inspiration, take a page from Juliette Binoche, who plays the mother in this film. She’s French, but she learned Italian to hit the right notes on this one.
4. “I Cento Passi” (“The Hundred Steps”) (2000)
Director: Marco Tullio Giordana
The title refers to the distance between a political activist’s house and the house of an influential Mafia boss.
“I Cento Passi” is the story of Peppino Impastato, who at a time when nobody else was brave enough to even acknowledge the existence of the Mafia, headed a radio program that revealed their criminal activities and abuses.
Ultimately, Impastato was liquidated by the Mafia, in what was originally ruled as a suicide. Twenty years after the event, the case has been reopened and a conviction was handed down for murder.
The movie is peppered with charged language and is a treat for those of you who want to acquaint yourselves with the Sicilian dialect.
And just as a sidebar, in the opening of the movie, you can hear the young Peppino sing “Nel blu dipinto di blu” (“In the blue that is painted blue”) which you may know as “Volare.” It’s a great Italian song that’s worth a study.
5. “Caro Diario” (“Dear Diary”) (1993)
Director: Nanni Moretti
This is another one of those films where the director also plays the main character. It’s actually a 100-minute, semi-autobiographical piece by Nanni Moretti, which won him the Best Director at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival.
The movie has the flavors of a narrated documentary and is divided into three distinct chapters. The first is a Vespa cruise around an eerily deserted city of Rome, where Moretti talks about anything and everything from cinema to philosophy.
The second chapter is a jaunt of several Italian islands in search for peace and tranquility, where he meets old friends and many interesting characters.
The third is a journey of health where the director takes us with him through doctors, diagnoses and desperation as he tries to find treatment for an ailment.
Since narration is the main feature of the film, you have plenty of material for studying Italian in the first-person perspective, as well as discovering the declarative forms of communication.
If you’re going to be talking to a native speaker over coffee, you’ll definitely get a lot from this movie.
6. “Cinema Paradiso” (“Paradise Cinema”) (1988)
Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
“Cinema Paradiso” is a classic from Tornatore about a man’s journey from a boy slipping into the projection booth, to working as a projectionist himself, to being an acclaimed director.
But just as well, it tells the story of a love lost and the perpetual thought of “where could she be,” a movie that can make you fall in love with the characters as well as the story.
It continues to be discussed in film circles today, with cinephiles debating over deleted scenes. It’s been remastered so generations of movie goers can experience Tornatore.
Language learners will truly appreciate how beautiful the Italian language is. Not only are famous lines from other movies quoted, the movie itself is a basket of beautiful prose.
Look especially at the lines of Alfredo, the original movie projector operator who mentored the young protagonist.
7. “Il Postino” (“The Postman”) (1994)
Director: Michael Radford
And talking about the power of words and the beauty of the Italian language, we come to “Il Postino.”
It’s a fictionalized story of a mailman and the renowned poet Pablo Neruda, who was politically exiled to a small Italian island. Mario, a simple island folk, would find himself lucky for getting the job of biking to the poet’s house and personally delivering letters from the hordes of Neruda admirers, most of them women.
“Il Postino” is a movie about courtship. But as it turns out, it’s not really about the courtship between Mario and Beatrice, the woman our protagonist wanted to seduce through his poems. It’s the courtship between Mario and Neruda, who initially responded to Mario’s interest and admiration with elitist nonchalance.
But the poet’s cold exterior melted and soon he began to take Mario under his wing, teaching him not only poetry but also his political philosophies.
You’ll have so much more appreciation to the written word after this movie. You’ll begin to comprehend how governments, hearts and mindsets fall with the strike of a well-written word.
And those are just seven of the most awesome offspring of Italian cinema. Each one has a certain slant, flavor, style or lesson that will help you learn Italian.
I trust that with the tips gained here, you’ll be able to attack any Italian film and milk it for all it’s worth.
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