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 the Iberian peninsula or cinematographic expressions of Brazilian culture. For someone learning Portuguese as a second language, listening to the dialogue of a film is much like a Portuguese grammar or vocabulary lesson!

Watching a film makes learning Portuguese easier to integrate into your daily activities. Settling down for a night of binge-watching via a streaming service such as Netflix or Amazon Prime (not many of us play a DVD anymore!)? Why not watch a Portuguese feature film instead?

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Why Watch Portuguese Films?

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 an easy and fun way thanks to the cinema - just pop on a movie 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.

Read the subtitles and listen carefully to try and match the words that you're seeing with what you're hearing.

Learn Portuguese with Portuguese films.
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, gives 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!

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A French-Portuguese Comedy: The Gilded Cage

A cast of wonderful Portuguese actors in a simple, charming film - ideal for learning a foreign language!

Learn to speak Portuguese with the Gilded Cage
The Gilded Cage is a charming Portuguese comedy ideal for learning the Portuguese language. Photo credit: kaysha on Visual Hunt

The Gilded Cage (A Gaiola Dourada or La Cage Dorée in French) was released in cinemas in 2013. Directed by Ruben Alves, this French-Portuguese comedy is charming and full of pep. The soundtrack features a lot of traditional and popular Portuguese music such as fado (a kind of Portuguese singing that is famous for its expressive and deeply melancholic character), 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. It won the People's Choice Award for Best European Film at the European Film Awards in 2013.

A Grimmer Portuguese Film: The Strange Case of Angelica

Some films are darker than others. The Strange Case of Angelica (O Estranho Caso de Angélica) by director 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 movies.

It is the tale of a young Jewish photographer named Isaac who has sought refuge near the Portuguese city 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.

The film was entered into the "Un Certain Regard" section of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. And believe it or not, director Manoel de Oliveira was 101 years old when he made the film!

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A Historical Film for Learning Portuguese: Lines of Wellington

When the film industry joins forces with history, you get an amazing original-language film production.

This 2012 movie’s plot 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 when he unfortunately 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 scorched-earth policy (a military strategy that seeks to destroy anything that might assist the enemy) that accompanied the general’s retreat behind the lines of Torres Vedras (lines of forts and other military defences constructed in secrecy to protect Lisbon during the Peninsular War).

Lines of Wellington (Linhas de Wellington) 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 in the end it was not nominated.

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A Portuguese-Language Film in Several Parts: Tabu

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 Santa Maria, Cape Verde. 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.

Miguel Gomes won the Alfred Bauer Award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2012. Tabu won Best Film at the Ghent International Film festival in 2012 and at the Golden Globes, Portugal in 2013.

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Tabu is a Portuguese film that takes place in Africa.
The second part of the Portuguese film "Tabu" plays in the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique. Photo credit: Cornelius Kibelka on Visualhunt.com

Portuguese Filmmaker Extraordinaire: João Pedro Rodrigues

New Portuguese Cinema: The Ornithologist

When a Portuguese director 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 (O Ornitólogo) is a Portuguese film by João Pedro Rodrigues that opened in theatres in 2016. It is the tale of a young and eager ornithologist (a person who studies or is an expert on birds) 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 the town 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 at the Locarno International Film Festival.

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Watch Portuguese films in the original language
When learning Portuguese, it's best to stick with Portuguese films rather than translations from the English. Photo credit: Bartlett School of Architecture UCL on Visualhunt

LGBT+ Portuguese Cinema: To Die Like a Man

Another of João Pedro Rodrigues’ feature films, To Die Like a Man (Morrer Como um Homem) was released 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 at 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 movies 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 by streaming Netflix or Amazon Prime.

And don’t forget the contribution of the Brazilian cinematic industry to Portuguese-language filmmaking!

A Portuguese-Language Film From Brazil: The City of God

City of God (Cidade de Deus), directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lun, was released in Brazil in 2002. It's a crime film about two boys growing up in a favela (a Brazilian slum or shantytown) in Rio de Janeiro. Screenwriter Bráulio Mantovani adapted the movie from the 1997 novel of the same name written by Paulo Lins, but the plot is based on a true story, and some of the actors were even residents of the favelas.

It portrays the increase of organised crime in the City of God (Cidade de Deus) favela, between the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1980s. The two boys take very different paths, one becoming a photographer, and the other a drug dealer.

The movie garnered widespread critical success. It was Brazil's submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2003, however it did not end up receiving a nomination. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes and Best Film not in the English Language at the BAFTA Awards in 2003. In 2004, it was nominated for four Oscars.

A Brazilian–French Drama: Central Station

Directed by Walter Salles and released in 1998, Central Station (Central do Brasil) is named after Rio de Janeiro’s main railway station. The film tells the tale of a young boy's friendship with a jaded middle-aged woman.

The woman is former schoolteacher Dora (played by Fernanda Montenegro), who supports herself by writing letters for illiterate people. The young boy's mother has just died, and together they go on a journey to find his father.

This emotive and heart-warming film received international critical acclaim. Montenegro's performance earned her a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress while the movie received a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film

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.

If you don't have anything to do tonight, why not pop on a Portuguese-language film, from either Portugal or Brazil, and get on your way to learning the language!

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Alison

Ali is an Australian writer, community manager and art curator living in Paris.