Challenging cultural stereotypes through contemporary Italian films

Author: Donata Puntil


This paper aims to demonstrate how cinema, as a visual aid, provides insights into contemporary Italian culture and society and at the same time how it can bring students into direct contact with an authentic use of Italian language and idioms.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Setting the Agenda: Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in Higher Education conference, 24-26 June 2002.


Visuals have been used as an aid to language and the transmission of information since pre-historic times. From the paintings and drawings found on the walls of cave-dwellers, through Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese ideograms to modern visual extravaganza, man has consistently made visual representation of reality. Throughout history, the world has transformed into an icon, a visual figurativization of internal and external reality. This is not surprising given the fact that sight is the strongest of the five senses.
(Brown and Mollica 1989-90)

This quotation clearly shows how visual aids of one kind or another have been used as a medium of conveying a message and of teaching since ancient times and if we move forward to modern times, particularly from the nineteen eighties onward, it would be difficult to come across a language teacher who did not make use of at least one type of visual aid in his/her classes. This is due mainly to the fact that visual aids of any type are strictly linked to the term 'non-verbal', which means all events of human communication which transcend spoken or written language. Non-verbal communication is considered to be extremely important by researchers in SLA and by teachers because of the role it plays within the communication system as a whole, because of the high semantic value carried in its iconic code, which is considered to be more spontaneous, direct and less apt to be manipulated than the correspondent linguistic code would be.

In order to understand this perspective, it is necessary to enter the field of psycholinguistics and of neuro-linguistics to see how the learning process originates. Learning has a cognitive and an affective domain: the first one deals with the acquisition of analytical and intellectual abilities and skills, while the second one deals with all those emotional elements involved in the learning process. From a neurological point of view, the first aspect of learning (the cognitive-intellectual) is strictly linked to the left side of the brain which elaborates and 'learns' all information sent by the right side of the brain (the emotional-creative) which captures all the stimuli coming from the external world. The right side of the brain is therefore dealing with all the emotional, instinctive, visual, non-verbal elements of learning, while the left side is coordinating all the rational, logical, intellectual and verbal aspects of learning. It is obvious to state that in any human action both sides of the brain are simultaneously involved in order to catch, elaborate and internalise all the information sent by 'outside' and particularly in any spoken or written production and utterance the right and left hemispheres of the brain strictly collaborate.

Unfortunately in most learning environments the teacher's attention is mainly focused on the cognitive, intellectual areas and not enough on the creative, emotional, psychological aspects of the learning process. The focus of the classes is generally more directed towards quantifiable oral or written production, rather than on how to motivate and stimulate that particular production. Images of any kind should be used more within a classroom to create motivation and interest in students, to activate the more instinctive and irrational side of their brain, in order to make them less aware of being part of a learning process. Words are always connected to meanings and meanings to images (also mental images) which refer in turn to a particular semiotic symbol. Thus, the use of any visual aids works exactly on this spontaneous association between the abstract meaning of a word and its concrete correspondent. In language teaching it is therefore extremely important to integrate any visual aid (images, pictures, drawings, graphics, cartoons, comics, maps, photographs, charts, models, films and videos) in order to associate images with their equivalent written or spoken words, particularly every time the student approaches the study of something 'new'. In this way the teacher will create a stimulus for the right side of each student's brain and they, almost unconsciously, will relate the presented image to their pre-requisite knowledge and will consequently formulate hypothesis about the meaning of that given word/idea, coming to some conclusion, later monitored and confirmed or not by the teacher.

Among all types of visual aids, I personally think that the use of video, and in particular of films, is extremely relevant and effective from the first stages of the learning process because it promotes, more than other visuals, all those aspects discussed above. First of all it reproduces the natural process of learning a L1 by a child (imagearrowmeaningarrowword) in its use of images and then it represents a unique medium of tying together language, culture and society in an authentic and empathetic experience of life.

Why use cinema in language teaching?

Cinema is a very powerful medium for teaching culture and language at the same time, for bringing students into close contact with the lifestyle and society of the country whose language they choose to study and, above all, it offers a contemporary image of reality. If we consider culture as strictly close to language and, at the same time, language as being an intrinsic part of culture, we are faced with a dynamic, ever-changing life process. Every language is obviously a dynamic, unstable, variable entity which evolves with the evolution of humanity and mankind, and culture (meaning culture in all its many aspects) goes hand to hand with it. It is therefore very difficult and challenging as a language teacher to be able to expose students to this never-ending evolution process, to this instability, and it is very difficult to give them this idea of fluidity, of flexibility, of the continuous variation of this evolving language-culture binomial.

Cinema, therefore, represents a unique and irreplaceable way to convey this language/culture parallelism because in its highly iconic and linguistic codes, it is a visual and verbal representation of a certain reality and gives an immediate insight into the country's culture in all its different aspects. It can in fact represent a first approach to a country's culture and society which should be introduced within a classroom from the first stages of the learning process, in order to make students aware and feel part of that area of the world whose language they are studying. Cinema offers the opportunity to experience language in context, which means to 'see' and 'listen' to the authentic (which does not mean correct or standard!) language spoken by their native speakers within a specific context, a physical, social and environmental background. In this way students are literally taken into the country, are exposed to a reality, even if fictional and on screen, that they would not have any chance of experiencing if not through films or other images. The advantage of using films rather then other visual aids, lies exactly in this idea of authenticity and immediateness in the representation of reality which highly stimulates students' imagination and involves their senses directly, particularly their sense of sight, by exposing them to images which they can relate to. Films in fact are build around universal ideas and images everyone can refer to. They are produced in order to work on people's objective and subjective past experiences through the power of images to which they can relate. The same is true of students. Therefore it is extremely important in the choice of which film clip to show, to select an appropriate and relevant clip according to students' age, social and cultural background, linguistic past experiences in order to present them with something they can easily relate to, rather than feel excluded from. If the choice has been successful students might experience a sort of empathetic experience with the images presented and consequently with the reality their represent, this aspect will certainly facilitate the learning process which lies behind it and the acquisition of any language items involved in it.

But, on the other hand, if the first encounter with a film clip is done in a more 'aggressive' way, it could produce more negative than positive effects, since it could create anxiety and fear in students who are faced with images they are not ready, linguistically and culturally, to deal with. A film clip in fact, if not appropriately selected, could convey too great an amount of images (verbal and non-verbal) for the student to work out and in this way it could promote the student's passive response to the language and culture presented. In some cases it could also reinforce, rather than challenge, the student's prejudices and stereotypes about the L2/LS culture and country.

The selection of the material, in order to be productive and positively effective, has therefore to be:

  • interesting
  • stimulating
  • relevant (from the content point of view)
  • visually effective in the choice of the images presented
  • clear in the quality of sound
  • selected according to the students' abilities and their cultural knowledge but at the same time has to challenge their knowledge
  • selected according to the students' knowledge of the language, but at the same time has to present some 'new' elements both in the lexicon and in the morpho-syntax
  • selected according to the principle that language and culture are bound together.

The reality that cinema can clearly convey this binomial language/culture lies in its being an authentic source material, in its being not manipulated or facilitate for students' understanding, in its being 100% an image of that particular reality it stands for. This is in fact one of the most positive and effective aspects of using cinema in language teaching, because with this image of authenticity it really generates motivation in students, by involving their genuine interests, emotions, creativity, expectations, judgements and personal experiences, even if the language they have to deal with could be an obstacle. This obstacle is in fact overcome by the immediateness of the images which catches students' attention by stimulating the right side of their brain with its music, sounds, colours, images etc, which are the first elements to impress their brain, before words or sentences are understood. By the time students try to mentally elaborate those images, by trying to find within themselves something they can refer to, some cultural, linguistic, or subjective element they can attach these new images to, they will already unconsciously and instinctively have created a linguistic reference to the words which go with those images. In this way, as stated before, students will be less aware of being part of a learning process because the power of the images would have reduced their level of anxiety and discomfort and would have increased their more 'relaxed' and natural approach to language. Cinema can in fact be very productive from a linguistic point of view because it stimulates both receptive, listening and reading (also reading images in their iconic codes) and productive skills, speaking and writing, in fact on one side at the beginning it takes students away from the anxiety of having to 'do', to produce something, and on the other side it could create the right stimulus to express some ideas, points of view, emotions and thoughts in relation to those images.

Cinema generally promotes a 'relaxed' learning environment and at the same time offers the teacher a never-ending instrument to implement his/her lessons first of all by giving plenty of different language models to be exploited in many different ways, among which can be found a great deal of idioms and slang which are difficult to find elsewhere. In fact one of the main benefits of using film is to expose students to genuine dialects, regional variations and to a colloquial use of language among many different social groups. It gives the teacher the possibility to present and analyse a variety of language according to the social and physical context in which it is performed (such as the use of different dialects, register, etc.), it also offers a great opportunity for the teacher to find and present pragmatics in context, all those functional linguistic elements which are very difficult to present out of their natural context.

From the students' point of view, it offers them the possibility to create their own language by instinctively trying to anticipate the verbal meaning related to its content (the same natural process in learning a L1); it gives them the natural pleasure of self-discovery, of experimenting their own learning abilities and strategies. It also provides students with a mnemonic visual support by helping them to retain and recall the meaning of words in relation to the images (visual memory).

As a teacher of Italian language, literature and cinema I make extensive use of film clips both inside my cinema class (obviously enough) but also in my other language classes from the lowest level to the highest, because I really believe in its being a very powerful medium of conveying language and culture and also because, as an Italian working outside Italy, Italian cinema and culture in general are not very accessible. Therefore I try as much as possible to bring my students into close contact with all those cultural elements they can not find in their country, which are extremely essential to understand Italian language, society, culture and country. As a teacher of Italian I have constantly to face and challenge common stereotypes about my native country, stereotypes that sometimes are reinforced by some current images, by some old-fashioned films and by some old-fashioned people too!

I therefore find films a precious instrument in my profession as a way to challenge these stereotypes and to promote a more real and authentic image of my country, an image which any way it would be presented, would always remain partial and isolated. I deal mainly with young people, with university students who sometimes have never been to Italy, or whose knowledge of Italy is linked only to some stereotypical and narrow-minded images, therefore what I try to do is first of all present to them something which will challenge their pre-packed ideas and at the same time will stimulate their imagination so that they will be motivated to go on in this exploratory process on their own. I try to find films which mainly, and particularly during a first phase, present various images of young people so that students can relate to the portrayal of a more familiar reality and characters with whom they more readily empathise. These films will at the same time give them plenty of different uses of a 'real' contemporary language, particularly the idiomatic language of the younger generation with their different rhythms and pronunciation. The clips will not only give students an insight into Italian contemporary culture and society, but they will also present students with new images of Italian cinema, which means images of Italian cultural production.

The films I selected for my presentation at the conference were just an example of the wide range of contemporary Italian film production and particularly of that genre dealing with young people and their existential problems, which are universal problems, not just Italian ones, and therefore easily accessible and recognizable by an audience who can identify with them.

I presented these film in a chronological order, not of production, but according to the age of the main characters which goes from 13 or 14 in the first film to 30 in the last one; with each of the clips I showed, I tried to challenge a stereotype and to present a more real image of contemporary Italian life.

  • The first film was Francesca Archibugi's L'Albero delle Pere (1998), in which I try to discuss the stereotype of Italian men as being constantly depending from their mothers, here in fact we'll see a thirteen year-old boy who literally takes care of both his mum, an irresponsible woman, and his little sister and who deals with a great variety of adults situations.
  • The second was Gabriele Muccino's Come Te Nessuno Mai (1999), in which we see two sixteen year-old friends discussing clothes and the identification of a group of young people with culture of clothes and fashion. Here I tried to demonstrate how Italian young people are the same as young people everywhere.
  • The third one was Davide Ferrario's Tutti giù per Terra (1997), in which we see an eighteen or nineteen year-old boy walking through his native city asking himself all those existential questions young people all over the word ask themselves at that age.
  • The fourth one was Fulvio Ottaviano's Cresceranno I Carciofi a Mimongo (1997) in which we are faced with a twenty-five year-old man dealing with all those universal problem everyone has to face after finishing university and looking for a job.
  • The fifth one was Gabriele Muccino's L'Ultimo Bacio in which we look at all those problems that a thirty year-old man has facing life as an adult for the first time in matters of job, love, family and friends.


My experience of using these, and other contemporary Italian films which are not considered as 'main-stream' films, in the classes I teach has been wholly positive, both in Beginners and in Advanced classes. The selection of a clip depends first of all on the level of the students, both linguistic and cultural, and also on the didactic aims the teacher would like to reach by using that particular film. By carefully selecting extracts and building classroom exercises around the students' response to these extracts (often giving students the opportunity to view the clip or clips more than once, particularly where the language/dialect is difficult) I have found an immediate engagement on the part of students with the content of the films which transcends their consciousness of language acquisition.


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