In my last newsletter, we talked about opera, an art form largely invented (and certainly perfected) by the Italians in the 17th century. Now I’d like to mention a more recent art form that, while usually associated with the US, has unique place in Italian culture, as well.
The movies produced by American film companies in Hollywood are famous around the world for their big budgets and star-filled casts. Italy, and indeed the rest of the world, either can’t or choose not to compete against those big studios for consumer dollars and instead opt for a more artistic expression.
Some of these movies aren’t so easy to appreciate because there are culture references that don’t translate well. Indeed, the translations found in the subtitles aren’t always linguistically accurate. Or if they are, the meaning/context is lost. We can’t always substitute one thing for another, whether it’s a word or a gesture or a custom.
For precisely this reason, I’d like to suggest that watching Italians movies is a wonderful way to improve your understanding of both the language and the culture at large. By observing these nuances, you begin to “understand” more than you actually “know.” Let’s take a quick survey of some of the classics in Italian cinema.
La Dolce Vita – Fellini’s classic follows the “sweet life” of a tabloid journalist who covers the glitzy show business life in Rome. In constant search for the next big scandal, he is continually seduced by the decadent life led by Rome’s pampered rich.
Il Postino – A shy postman strikes up an unlikely friendship with exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Through Neruda’s example and tutelage, the hero learns to think of his Italian fishing village in lyrical terms, as well as how to talk to women and even find the strength to take a political stand.
Ladri di Biciclette – A 1947 drama of desperation and survival in Italy’s devastating post-war depression. Shot in the streets of Rome, director Vittorio De Sica uses the real-life environment of contemporary life to frame his moving drama of a desperate father whose new job is threatened when a street thief steals his bicycle.
Cinema Paradiso – An enchanting story of a young boy’s lifelong love affair with the movies. Set in a small Italian village, Salvatore finds himself captivated by the flickering images at the Cinema Paradiso, yearning for the secret of the cinema’s magic.
La Vita è Bella – The most successful foreign language film in U.S. history, the picture also earned director-cowriter-star Benigni Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor. He plays the Jewish country boy Guido, a madcap romantic in Mussolini’s Italy who wins the heart of his sweetheart (Benigni’s real-life sweetie, Nicoletta Braschi) and raises a darling son in the shadow of fascism.
If you’re in Rome, you can visit the studios of Cinecittá where much of the magic has taken place over the years. Here you can walk on the set of several movies, such as The Gangs of New York, and the HBO series, Rome.
Compared to the Hollywood blockbusters, Italian films hardly carry the same box office wallop. But there’s a more subtle art which requires more conscious attention from the viewer. However, short of living in Italy, these films provide the most complete insight into Italian culture. Enjoy!