5 classic films to learn Spanish

Need a break from the Spanish grammar book you’ve been binging at the beach? Might we suggest a talking picture?

Also known as a movie, or, en español, “una película”, they’re quite popular alternatives to looking at your phone. Many Spanish learners think that reading textbooks and looking up vocabulary words is the cornerstone to mastering a foreign language. While these pedagogical resources are certainly useful, watching movies in their original language is not only fun – it’s also an effective way of learning the language, improving your listening skills, and broadening your knowledge of Hispanic culture. You’re always saying you want to broaden your knowledge of Hispanic culture. It’s kind of annoying, actually.

The Spanish-language movie scene offers a wide array of styles, genres and actors, and when combined with award-winning directors, it’s hard to go wrong. Thanks to your late-night drunk streaming, the Spanish film industry is thriving, and is widely celebrated as being both creative and technically proficient, which we all know is what you look for in a good film.

Therefore, we’ve come up with a list of five Spanish-language classics to help you along your Spanish learning journey. We have a lot of spare time.

1) Mar adentro – Alejandro Amenábar (2004)

When you can’t escape and you depend on others, you learn to cry by smiling.” A bizarre quote from a beautiful movie that we clearly don’t understand. Internationally known as “The Sea Inside”, Mar adentro deals with the true story of 25-year-old Ramon Sampedro (played by Javier Bardem), who is crippled following a diving accident. Paralyzed from the neck down, his only link with the outside world is through a small window opposite his bed overlooking the sea. This Oscar-award winning film – directed by Chilean director Alejandro Amenábar – examines the morality of euthanasia in a poetic and beautiful manner.

For whom? Although the movie mostly occurs in one room, the sharp dialogue makes the movie memorable and moving. Mar adentro is fit for intermediate learners of Spanish, as dialogues are sometimes spoken at a fast pace. We would recommend subtitles to enjoy the movie from beginning to end. Bonus: you’ll learn the proper use of the imperative and subjunctive mode. No need to thank us.

2) Todo sobre mi madre – Pedro Almodóvar (1999)

Todo sobre mi madre, El Deseo S.A, France 2 Cinéma, 1999

Almodóvar is the flag bearer for Spanish cinema, so you knew he had to be on this list somewhere. Well here he is, bearing his flag.

Todo sobre mi madre (All about my mother) opens in Madrid on single mother Manuela and her 17-year-old son Esteban emerging from the theatre on his birthday. Things soon take a turn for the worse as Manuela witnesses Esteban getting hit by a car whilst chasing an actress for her autograph. Manuela decides to quit her job and travel to Barcelona in the hopes of finding her son’s father, who, in a classic twist, turns out to be a transvestite called Lola, who had no idea he had a son. The movie deals with complex issues such as AIDS, homosexuality, transgenderism, faith, and existentialism. It is above all an ode to the LGBTQ+ community. One thing is for sure:  Todo sobre mi madre is one of the most memorable films in contemporary Spanish cinema.

For whom? In this 100-minute gem, you’ll pick up helpful vocabulary, and get exposed to the typical Madrid accent. Dialogues are easy to follow and accessible for all levels – a very useful tool to improve your listening skills! The movie will also extend your knowledge to subordinate clauses and expose you to colloquial Spanish, which is again, every learner’s dream.

3) La teta asustada – Claudia Llosa (2008)

La teta asustada – also known as The Milk of Sorrow – is a Spanish-language film which enjoys international recognition, and not just for its alienation of the lactose intolerant. The movie refers to a folk tale claiming that pregnant women who were abused or raped during or soon after pregnancy would – through their breast milk – pass on their sorrows to their daughters, who would then feel that sadness all throughout their lives. The film is beautiful not only in its imagery but also musically – the score features authentic Peruvian songs. Peruvian filmmaker Claudia Llosa (niece of writer Mario Vargas Llosa) has created an oddly beautiful tale about an ugly subject.

For whom? La teta asustada is a great way to immerse yourself in Peruvian culture and learn more about Peru’s decade of civil strife. The narrative form of the movie makes the plot easy to understand for any level.

4) Ocho apellidos vascos – Emilio Martínez-Làzaro (2014)

Ochos apellidos vascos, LaZona Films, 2014

Ocho apellidos vascos (Spanish affair) struck a chord with Spanish audiences five years ago when it was released- and we think we understand why. The story follows Rafael, a Sevillian who has never left the region of Andalucia, who ultimately decides to follow Amaia, a Basque girl with whom he has fallen in love. The film highlights numerous clichés and stereotypes about the regional differences, but overall it’s a breezy rom-com. You’ll be thrilled to know that the same director Emilio Martínez-Làzaro released a sequel, Ocho apellidos catalanes (Spanish Affair 2) in 2015: a perfect way to discover Catalonian culture!

For whom? We would recommend this movie for any intermediate-level Spanish student, as it comes with the advantage of exposing you to some of Spain’s most recognizable regional stereotypes and pokes fun at the cultural contrasts between the south (Andalucía) and the Basque country in northern Spain (País Vasco). Unfortunately, subtitles can only scratch the surface of the colloquial humor and subtle linguistic differences.

Roma – Alfonso Cuarón (2017)

We couldn’t continue our list without mentioning Alfonso Cuarón’s award-winning drama Roma. Well, technically we could but it’s a figure of speech. Roma chronicles the joyous highs and devastating lows of Cleo, a housekeeper and nanny, helping raise four young children in 1970s Mexico. The screenplay is largely based on Cuaron’s own childhood, growing up in the heart of Mexico City. 

Although the movie is not directly about the politics or social issues of the period, they naturally blend into the narrative, including as the Corpus Christi massacre, which left some 120 people dead. The black and white cinematography adds a touch of nostalgia.

For whom? Roma is an interesting watch regardless of your level, and includes some indigenous languages spoken (Mixtec) in addition to Mexican Spanish. The decision to add Castilian subtitles sparked controversy among film amateurs and linguists, calling it patronizing, offensive and extremely provincial. We don’t have a stance here. But the movie is good.

Bonus: Coco – Disney-Pixar (2017)

Coco, Disney-Pixar, 2017

Recuérdame, y viviré para siempre” (“Remember me and you’ll live forever”). With this quote in mind, it would be a crime to forget Coco, a Pixar film that spotlights the Mexican matriarch of the same name, on the verge of succumbing to dementia. 

The 95-minute movie pays tribute to Mexican culture, taking place during Día de los Muertos (a Mexican holiday celebrated every year on 2nd November). We follow the life of pre-teen and aspiring musician Miguel, who runs away from home in search of his great-grandfather. He ends up entering the netherworld, a classic wrong turn situation. Then begins a neon-colored fiesta featuring traditional Mexican imagery and music. It’s a fast-paced, multi-colored and vibrant escapade which will leave you with a smile on your face, and maybe even some tears if you’re the sentimental type.

For whom? Any beginning learner of Spanish will come to love and possibly obsess over this movie. With Coco, you can revise your grammar lessons such as ser and estar, the progressive form and even learn new vocabulary on family relations.

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