When we think of the Portuguese language, we think of azulejos, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Verde, Lisboa and Latin music. But what we often fail to think of is Portuguese cinema – whether we are talking about films produced on Iberian peninsula or cinematographic expressions of Brazilian culture. For someone learning Portuguese as a second language, listening to the dialogue of the winner in the category “best documentary” or any other film awards is much like a Portuguese grammar or vocabulary lesson!
The film industry is one of the most important in Britain. This makes learning Portuguese easier to integrate into your day’s activities. Settling down for an evening of binge-streaming? Why not watch a Portuguese feature film instead?
Even if you don’t own an English-Portuguese dictionary, even if you’re not lusophone or a follower of Brazilian politics or Spanish and Portuguese culture, you can still learn Portuguese in a fun and easy way thanks to the cinema – just pop in a DVD from your favourite Lusitanian filmmaker.
For if speaking Portuguese is not yet an automatic reflex or if you are struggling to understand when Portuguese people speak – watching Portuguese films will help activate your passive vocabulary, understand the rhythm of the language and learn to hear the individual words in a fast-talking dialogue.
Portuguese cinema is not as old and run-down as this movie theatre. It is a thriving and innovative industry. Photo credit: Al Rios on Visual Hunt
You will also discover another culture through a cinematographic lens. Documentaries or short films in the Portuguese language are a wonderful way to discover Portuguese history and culture. The diverse ways in which directors and screenwriters explore Portugal or Brazil and their culture in narrative, giving a unique insight into the people behind the language.
In any case, the Portuguese language need not hide behind others in terms of film-making. Here are some of the best Portuguese films to help you learn Portuguese!
A cast of wonderful Portuguese actors in a simple, charming film – ideal for learning a foreign language!
The Gilded Cage is a charming Portuguese comedy ideal for learning the Portuguese language. Photo credit: kaysha on Visual Hunt
A Gaiola Dourada or La Cage Dorée came out in cinemas in 2013. Directed by Ruben Alves, this French-Portuguese comedy is charming and full of pep. The soundtrack references a lot of traditional and popular Portuguese music (such as fado) and a lovely original score.
The Gilded Cage tells the story of a Portuguese immigrant couple living in Paris. The wife is a concierge, the husband a site manager. Everyone takes advantage of their good nature – often abusively. Until the couple finds out that they have inherited a house and a considerable amount of money from family in Portugal. However, the inheritance only takes effect if they actually live there.
This film is an ode to biculturalism; a film on emigration and identity that is also delightfully funny.
Some films are darker than others. The Strange Case of Angelica (O Estranho Caso de Angélica) by Manoel de Oliveira, which had its premiere at the 2010 International Film Festival at Cannes, is a French-Portuguese collaboration. A melancholic drama, this is a true pearl for lovers of more serious films.
It is a tale exploring the story of a young Jewish photographer named Isaac who has sought refuge near the Portuguese town of Porto. He is contacted by a family to photograph a young woman named Angelica, recently deceased, on her deathbed. Isaac immediately falls in love with her, and she starts appearing as though she were still alive, haunting even his dreams. Isaac progressively shuts himself off from the world, even hoping for his own death.
A difficult and profound film that poses numerous questions while allowing you to approach learning Portuguese from an entirely different perspective. With its quest for identity, impossible love and different view of death, The Strange Case of Angelica is a film that, whether or not you liked it, will not leave you indifferent.
When the film industry joins forces with history, you get an amazing original-language film production.
This 2012 movie’s plots take place during the third Napoleonic invasion of Portugal, aimed at overthrowing the country’s monarchy. It is directed by Valéria Sarmento, who took over from her husband Raoul Ruiz, who died during filming.
The movie is centred around a slew of little, personal stories, as well as that of the Duke of Wellington (starring, oddly enough, John Malkovich in the title role) and the greater historical scope as the Duke attempts to push the French armies back into Spain. It is a grand way of celebrating Portugal and its place in European history in an often dark and moody portrayal of the burnt-earth policy that accompanied the general’s retreat behind the lines of Torres Vedras.
It was nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival and was screened at film festivals in San Sebastiàn, Toronto and New York. It was under consideration for an Oscar but was not nominated.
Tabu, directed by Miguel Gomes, opened in theatres in 2012. Filmed in black and white and with an interesting storytelling premise, it first takes place in Lisbon, where Aurora is living with her housemaid from Cape Verde, Santa. In the first part of the film (”Paradise Lost”), Aurora asks a neighbour, Pilar, to find an old lover of hers. She succeeds – it turns out that he lived for a long time in Mozambique, one of the old Portuguese colonies. In the second part of the film (“Paradise”), he tells the story of how he and Aurora met in colonial Africa and the drama that ruined their lives.
The second part of the Portuguese film “Tabu” plays in the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique. Photo credit: Cornelius Kibelka on Visualhunt.com
When a Portuguese producer decides to adapt a screenplay in his own language, good things can happen – such as a film that will inspire you to delve even deeper into the Portuguese language.
The Ornithologist is a Portuguese film by João Pedro Rodrigues that opened in theatres in 2016. It is the story of a young and eager ornithologist who decides to go off alone on an expedition to study black storks in a natural reserve with nothing but a kayak and a basic survival kit.
One day he is thrown out of his kayak while navigating rapids and loses consciousness. He is found by two young Chinese Christian women who lost their way on a pilgrimage to Santigo di Compostella. However, it turns out that they are less than Christian in their intentions toward the ornithologist…
This acclaimed film was nominated for the Golden Leopard and won Best Direction as the Locarno International Film Festival.
When learning Portuguese, it’s best to stick with Portuguese films rather than translations from the English. Bartlett School of Architecture UCL on Visualhunt
Another of João Pedro Rodrigues’ feature films, Morrer Como um Homem came out in 2009 and immediately caught the public eye. It was featured in the category “Un Certain Regard” at the Festival of Cannes because of its depiction of sexual diversity.
It tells the story of Tonia (played by Fernando Santos), a transsexual woman playing a cabaret in Lisbon but whose career is starting to flag. Under pressure from her boyfriend to complete her transition, she finds that her past has come back to haunt her. It was on the list of Portuguese submissions for the 83rd Academy Awards but unfortunately did not make it to an Oscar nomination.
As you can see, Portuguese cinema is rife with experimental and inspiring films to help you learn Portuguese through hearing it spoken by native speakers. You can enjoy the creativity of filmmakers, celebrate the beautiful cinematography and revel in the actors’ amazing performances through a streaming venue such as Amazon Prime Video.
If you feel you are not up to a full-length feature film, see if you can find animated shorts, short films or a documentary film on a subject dear to you. And don’t forget the contribution of the Brazilian cinematic industry to Portuguese-language filmmaking!