Peeping at la dolce vita

On the Web, the right TV shows explain a lot about life in Italy - maybe

Critical Eye

October 28, 2007|By Norine Schiller | Norine Schiller,Sun Reporter

For years, people in other countries have watched dubbed exports of some of our finest TV shows to better understand American life.

Imagine what a well-rounded picture of us they have, after countless episodes of Dallas, Beverly Hills 90210, The Bold and the Beautiful and The High Chaparral.

Now that the Web has made international TV shows available anytime we want, I decided to return the anthropological favor and study another country's lifestyle through its television.

I began my Italian journey with Provaci Ancora Prof 2, a series about a high school literature teacher who, despite having a job and a daughter and a perfectly nice husband, still finds time to solve crimes and experience unspoken lust and pulsating sexual tension (but no actual sex) with a muscularly masculine police commissioner who last shaved yesterday.

All warmed up now, I was ready for stories set in a high-fashion clothing store near the Spanish Steps in Rome, in the series Commesse. That means "shopgirls," though one of the six protagonists is a gay man. The story makes it clear that, though the shopgirls/guy haven't any money to speak of, they wouldn't wipe dead bugs off their Vespas with the kind of rags you're wearing right now.

I saved Capri - mystery and romance in one of Italy's most picturesque tourist destinations - for dessert. After watching these shows for weeks on the Web site Rai Click, this is what I learned about Italy:

Strong emotions call for strong coffee.

In Italy, people don't drink big mugs of coffee for the entire duration of a scene, nursing them thoughtfully as they consider all the delicate nuances of people's feelings. They drink one dainty little demitasse like a shot of whiskey - knocking it back all at once and slamming down the cup or, if it's paper, shooting it with a "whack" into a nearby trash can. Whatever you're going through, just get over it. Caffeine equals catharsis.

When in doubt, kiss.

I have seen Italians, amid deep anger, uncertainty or anguish - even after having a rock wall collapse on them - just grab another person's face with both hands and lock on. Maybe they just didn't have any coffee.

My friends call me "Notary."

Not just doctors, judges and professors, but also lawyers, architects, police commissioners, engineers and notaries have their titles used interchangeably with their names. As in: "Lawyer, try the eggplant," or "Architect, hold this flashlight while we look for the body."

With great ardor comes great stupidity.

You might expect a man who grew up on an island, who owns a sailboat, who swims in races and who rents boats to tourists to have at least a passing familiarity with the rules of safe boating. So when the boom conks a Capri character's beloved wife on the side of the head while his back is turned and she falls into the sea, does he turn the boat around and look for her, then release the sails and let them flap while he rescues her? Does he listen for screams, while scanning the area with binoculars? Does he use his radio, which is, after all, there for emergencies?

No. He just jumps in. Does he have any idea where she is? No. Is he wearing a personal flotation device? No. Was she? Of course not. Because then, how could she be lost at sea, thus setting him up for years of great personal guilt and sorrow and nightmares, and giving him a reason to look tragically hot, in a brooding, deeply stylish way?

Convenient parking is always available near the Spanish Steps.

It is one of the most popular tourist sights in one of the most famous cities in the world. But if you have to visit a designer dress shop one block away from it, you should be able to pull up right in front. There might not even be any cars parked on the street at all. No, really.

Any man can figure out any woman's dress size in five seconds or less. Guaranteed.

Italian men are always picking out clothes (even shoes!) for women they just met and sending the parcels to their homes. Not only do the outfits always fit, the cut and color are perfect. The women are always delighted ... not at all creeped out. Here, we'd get a restraining order, change the locks and sweep the apartment for hidden cameras.

Children are such a precious, precious blessing.

When they stomp on the newly planted roses, take the ferry from Rome to Capri without telling anybody, inadvertently reveal that Daddy has been flirting with the dance teacher or crash an uninsured motorboat into the side of a yacht, thus breaking a woman's leg and hurling the family into financial ruin, well ... aren't bambini adorable?

Noble restraint is always rewarded.

When you hide your love because it would be wrong, you will always end up with the person you love - or someone even better! Plus, though tortured by secret longings, you get to look bravely, miserably fetching in a soft, styled updo with cleverly escaping tendrils that dance in the breeze around your sad, sad eyes.

Words can say one thing, the lips something else entirely and in a different language.

Dubbing is completely normal in Italian TV and movies. One non-Italian actor, portraying a professor named Helmut, seemed to have been chosen for the rubbery imprecision of his lips. Productions draw freely from other European countries, and some actors don't even try to speak Italian. If the words don't seem to match their lips, no one seems to notice.

They just grab the other person's face and kiss.

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