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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Ten of the best TV shows and films to help you learn Italian

What better way to improve your Italian than by getting comfy with a good TV series or film? Here's The Local's pick of the best shows to tune your ear and boost your cultural knowledge.

Learning Italian through watching TV can be both educational and fun.
Learning Italian through watching TV can be both educational and fun. Photo by Jonas Leupe on Unsplash

Out of the hundreds of different ways to learn Italian, one fun and useful method is to watch TV shows and films in the target language.

It trains you to listen to native speakers at a natural speed and improves your recognition of vocabulary and grammar.

Italian TV and film also provide cultural insights into Italy, taking you to different places and giving you a glimpse of what the people and history are like – wherever you are and at any time.

READ ALSO: 12 signs you’ve cracked the Italian language

Some programmes can be difficult, however, as they aren’t intended to be Italian lessons, of course. So choosing content that has subtitles available is a huge help and can further your language learning, as you can match the words to the sounds if you put the subtitles in Italian.

If that’s too hard, putting the subtitles in English means you’ll follow the story easily, but you still get used to the sounds until you’re ready to read in Italian too.

So grab the remote and a bucket of popcorn, it’s showtime!

Photo by Mollie Sivaram on Unsplash

1. L’incredibile storia dell’Isola delle Rose (Rose Island)

Based on a true story, this film shares the life and amazing feats achieved by Giorgio Rosa who founded a tiny nation in 1968 off the Rimini coast, in the northern region of Emilia Romagna.

He’d had enough of the rules laid down by the Italian government and so the idealistic engineer embarked on creating his own utopia, on a floating platform in the sea. Of course, the government wasn’t best pleased and much wrangling over power and boundaries ensues.

There are different scenes set in both Rimini and Bologna, where he drives around in his self-made car and generally gets into trouble for not sticking to the law.

This comedy-drama is available on Netflix and can be viewed in Italian with Italian or English subtitles. Due to its genre, the language isn’t technical, but the rapid-fire witticisms might have you rewinding a couple of times to get the joke.

The Ferragnez

If you fancy a slice of Italy’s pop culture, this reality series on Amazon Prime is worth a watch.

The docuseries follows Chiara Ferragni and rapper Fedez, one of the most followed couples in the country. You could say they’re the Italian answer to the Kardashians and, as their family grows, this behind-the-scenes show lifts the lid on what life is really like away from the Instagram filters and the stage.

If you’re thinking, ‘Who?’, Chiara Ferragni calls herself a digital entrepreneur and a fashion icon. She’s claimed some 24 million followers on Instagram and was crowned “Most Powerful Fashion Influencer” globally by Forbes.

Fedez and Chiara Ferragni at the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party (Photo by Frazer Harrison / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Fedez is no D-list celebrity either, with 60 platinum records under his belt and 12 million Instagram followers. For the couple who share so much of their lives already on social media, this gives an even deeper insight into their relationship and their glamorous lifestyle.

READ ALSO: How to talk about love, sex, and dating in Italian

The language is everyday conversation, but there are subtitles in both Italian and English available to help you follow their disagreements in couples’ therapy, their cosy chats and their business meetings that keep the lucrative ‘Ferragnez’ wheel turning.

Tre uomini e una gamba (Three men and a leg)

If you’re in the mood for a goofy, madcap caper this is the film for you. The film stars some of Italy’s comedy legends and was also co-written and co-directed by the comedy trio themselves – Aldo Baglio, Giovanni Storti and Giacomo Poretti.

The three friends have to travel from Milan to Gallipoli in Puglia for Giacomo’s wedding – and with a road trip that long, you just know all kinds of hilarious disasters are in store. Most of which involve the wooden leg they’re bringing with them, a soon to be priceless work of art as the famous artist is on his death bed.

You can view it on Netflix but the only subtitles available are in Italian, making this more of an intermediate level. You might notice that they don’t always translate every single word either, depending on how wacky the scene gets.

Metti la nonna in freezer (Put grandma in the freezer)

This black comedy film is even the more shocking when you find out it’s based on real stories of people putting their grandparents in the freezer when they die to keep collecting their pension.

It stars famous actor Fabio De Luigi, who plays the part of Simone Recchia, whose job it is to sniff out fraudulent financial activity.

The problem is, he falls madly in love with Claudia – a young woman who keeps collecting her grandma’s pension after she dies to keep her restaurant business afloat.

Hilarious scenes of disguises, thawing corpses and lies unfold that will leave you cringing and howling. You can watch it on Amazon Prime, but the subtitles are only available in Italian, so it’s not really ideal for beginners but definitely watchable for intermediate learners.

READ ALSO: How and why learning a new language messes with your old one

Benvenuti al Sud (Welcome to the south)

Another comedy to add to your list. This film touches on so many aspects of Italian culture, it’ll teach you more than just language.

The infamous Italian postal service and the north-south divide or just some of the themes well executed and ridiculed in the name of entertainment.

Alberto Colombo, played by actor Claudio Bisio, tries to get a transfer to Milan for the sake of his son’s education, but fails to clinch the spot after being caught trying to use the diversity card by pretending to be a disabled person.

He’s sent to the south instead to the provincial village of Castellabate, where the northern and southern way of working clashes. Stopping for a coffee with every postal delivery leaves the businessman both concerned for work efficiency and his health. It’s an entertaining and silly romp where he grows from hating the southern customs to loving the slower and more sociable way of life.

You can watch it on Netflix in Italian with Italian subtitles – and they even translate the small dialect parts too.

Quo Vado?

You may have heard about the Italian fixation on a ‘posto fisso‘ (a permanent job), mainly because they are so hard to come by in Italy. This film amusingly plays on this notion and sees the main character, Checco Zalone (played by actor Checco Zalone), sent from undesirable place to undesirable place in an attempt to get him to resign and save the local government some money.

He’s not interested and refuses to leave his cushty lifetime employment and benefits, which gets him transferred to various inhospitable locations, such as the arctic research station. There, he manages to make the best out of the situation with an admirable amount of good humour.

It’s a film you’ll want to watch more than once, as the jokes about Italian culture are first rate – especially when Checco goes to try Italian food in Norway, much to his disgust. You can get Italian subtitles with this film on Netflix.

Little Big Italy

Speaking of Italians going crackers at their cuisine in other countries, this TV series is unmissable – both for the language learning opportunity and the sheer comedy of Italians slating restaurant owners who’ve adapted their dishes to other countries.

This show, which is now in its fourth series and can be viewed on TV channel ‘Nove’, sees restaurateur-turned-presenter Francesco Panella travel across the globe in search of the best Italian restaurants outside Italy.

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He meets Italians living in varies cities, who propose that their favourite Italian restaurant is the most authentic, with prizes on offer for the one that gets the most votes for the quality of their dishes and their faithfulness to Italian cooking heritage.

READ ALSO: The words and phrases you need to know to decipher Italian restaurant menus

It’s catty, cutting and comedic. Of course, with it being on TV, this is harder to follow as there aren’t any subtitles. It’s worth a go, as you can still understand the gist even if you don’t get every word.

There are also previous episodes available on YouTube, which come with subtitles if you want to start from the beginning with some help.

 Francesco Panella (R) with his brother Simone Panella at an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, New York. Photo by Ilya S. Savenok / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

L’Eredità (The inheritance)

Here’s a game show on Italian TV that will boost your general knowledge and Italian vocabulary. Seven contestants compete in various elimination trials based on trivia and language questions, until they reach the final stage of the game. At this point, the champion of the day has to guess a word through the “clue words” to win.

You can watch it on RaiPlay and, while there are no subtitles, if you watch it online instead of TV at least, you can go back and take time to learn all those new words.

Strappare lungo i bordi (Tear along the dotted lines)

A new cartoon series set in Rome has impressed the bigwigs at Netflix, becoming the most watched series in Italy, according to industry reports.

Created by Rome cartoonist Michele Rech, better known as Zerocalcare, the animated series tells his anecdotes through the form of an armadillo.

Zerocalcare reflects on his life and a missed love affair as he travels out of town with two friends.

The language has caused some problems even for Italians, as it’s narrated in his Roman dialect. However, there are subtitles and it has even been dubbed into English (although that would miss the point of learning Italian – or the dialect from Rome).

But for anyone interested in learning Romanesco, it’s well worth the advanced linguistic workout.

READ ALSO: Twelve dialect words to help you survive in Rome

A subtitles hack

If you struggle with following Italian TV, take a look at the super handy Chrome extension, previously called Language Learning with Netflix, now known as Language Reactor.

It makes Italian shows easier to watch by making the subtitles interactive. If you don’t know a word, you can click it and a definition will appear.

You can also use the playback function to hear a line of speech again and you can also compare the translation to English too in the sidebar. It’s less relaxed than just sitting back with a glass of wine, but it’s still a much more fun way to learn Italian than drilling verb tables.

How about you? What are your favourite Italian shows and films that help you improve your listening skills? Tell us in the comments below.

Member comments

  1. L’incredibile storia dell’Isola delle Rose (Rose Island) is a great great movie but it will not help you learn Italian as most is spoken in the local Emilia dialect…. I was wondering why I understood so little haha

  2. You’be missed the easiest one to access, Un posto al sole on Rai (and Rai Play). It’s been running for 26 seasons, is terrible, but is great for learning Italian (with some Napolitano thrown in). Good for comprehension, getting a sense for how people talk to each other (especially the formalities of Italian which often leave foreigners confused), and even if you don’t understand all of it, get stuck in and you’d be amazed at how much you can pick up.

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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Si tratta di’

What's this phrase all about?

Italian expression of the day: 'Si tratta di'

Today’s expression is one you’ll hear a lot in spoken Italian.

It’s also a tricky one for anglophones to wrap our heads around, because although it appears simple – ‘si tratta di’ basically means something along the lines of ‘it concerns/discusses/deals with/is about’ – it actually doesn’t translate very cleanly into English most of the time.

Let’s start with the use that’s easiest for us to grasp: asking and answering what something’s about/what it concerns.

– Pronto, sono l’ispettore Jackson, posso parlare con la signora Hoffman?
– Sì, sono io – posso chiedere di cosa si tratta?

– Hello, this is Inspector Jackson speaking, can I speak with Mrs. Hoffman?
– Yes, this is she – may I ask what this is concerning?

Boris Gabrieli GIF - Boris Gabrieli Padre Gabrieli GIFs

We can also use the phrase to say that something is ‘a matter of’ or ‘a question of’:

Se si tratta di qualche ora, rimarremo qui ad aspettarla.
If it’s a question of hours, we’ll stay here and wait for her.

Ora si tratta solo di scoprire dove ha lasciato le chiavi.
Now it’s a just a matter of figuring out where she left the keys.

And si tratta di can also be as a translation for ‘when it comes to’.

Adoro mangiare bene, ma quando si tratta di cucinare sono una frana.
I love eating well, but when it comes to cooking I suck.

Same GIF - Cooking GIFs

Where things start to get a bit more complicated is that you’ll often see the phrase used where the English translation doesn’t require anything.

For example, you might hear the following exchange at work:

– Michela non viene al lavoro oggi perché la sua bambina è malata.
– Spero che non si tratti di nulla di grave.

– Michela’s not coming into work today because her little girl’s sick.
– I hope it’s nothing serious.

You could say ‘I hope it doesn’t consist of anything serious’, which would get you closer to a direct translation – but in English this would sound oddly formal and overblown (in the above example we use tratti rather than tratta because spero che requires the subjunctive).

What if you want to say that a certain thing – a song, a book, a film, a speech – discusses or ‘deals with’ certain themes or issues?

Kelly Office GIF - Kelly Office Birthday GIFs

Firstly, note that impersonal si there. It’s standing in for a subject, which means we can’t have both the subject and the si in the same sentence together – one of them has to go.

You can say, for example, ‘Il suo terzo libro tratta delle idee di pressione sociale e di libertà personale‘ – ‘her third book deals with ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom.’

Or you can say, ‘Nel suo terzo libro, si tratta delle idee di pressione sociale e di libertà personale‘ – ‘In her third book, she discusses ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom” (a more literal translation would be ‘in her third book, ideas of societal pressure and personal freedom are discussed’, which sounds a bit awkward in English).

You could ask:

Di cosa tratta il libro?
What does the book discuss?

or

Di cosa si tratta nel libro?
What’s discussed in the book?

Adam Scott Whats It All About GIF - Adam Scott Whats It All About Fill Me In GIFs

What you can’t do is say, ‘Il libro si tratta di…’ or ask ‘Di cosa si tratta il libro?’. Neither of these constructions work because you can’t have both the impersonal si and the subject (in this case, il libro) together.

What if you want to say, for example, ‘the book/film is about…’?

The easiest way to do that is either to just say ‘il film parla di…‘ – ‘the film talks about…’ ; or ‘il film racconta la storia di…’ – ‘the film tells the story of…’:

Il film parla di un robot che vuole distruggere la razza umana.
The film’s about a robot who wants to destroy the human race.

arnold schwarzenegger terminator GIF

Il libro racconta la storia di un ragazzo che scopre di essere un mago.
The book tells the story of a boy who discovers he’s a wizard.

Hopefully now you have a better idea of what this phrase is all about!

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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