Cops and Robbers

I rarely watch film or television drama. It’s not that I have a low opinion of it: there are many famous and successful shows that I’m sure must deserve their reputation. But like a relationship that doesn’t work, it’s a case of “it’s not them; it’s me”. Mainly, I just can’t be bothered to make the emotional investment to sit down and engage, which I suppose suggests that the reward I get is insufficient to justify the effort.

That may well be related to my particular type of mind. I saw on a science programme a bit about Simon Baron-Cohen’s theories of “systemizing” versus “empathizing” and, curious, found an internet questionnaire which claimed to place you on his spectrum. I scored 61 (high) for “systemizing” and 33 (low) for “empathizing”. The gloss for those marks was, quote: “you have an above average ability for analysing and exploring a system” and “you have a lower than average ability for understanding how other people feel and responding appropriately”.

So maybe the screen fiction I would like would be less about feelings and relationships and more about logic and systems? Say, detective dramas. Wow! Spooky! I do like detective dramas. Maybe there’s something in Simon Baron-Cohen’s theories. (That’s shows with deduction, logic and analysis; not violence, shooting and car chases. That doesn’t impress me much.)

All of which goes to explain why I picked detective fiction on television to try to improve my Italian language skills. Of the two main series I watched, one, Commissario Montalbano, has been shown on the BBC with English subtitles, while the other, Don Matteo, hasn’t been shown to English-speaking audiences, as far as I know.

don matteoThe latter is a fairly lightweight piece of puff with a strong comedy undercurrent. It stars Terence Hill, formerly a cowboy in spaghetti westerns, such as My Name Is Trinity. He’s getting on a bit now, but still has the striking blue eyes and rugged good looks. He plays a priest, Don Matteo, retired from a rough and dangerous missionary life to a parish in the city of Gubbio in Umbria. Part of the attraction for me was that I’ve been to Gubbio a couple of times, and even visited Don Matteo’s church.

The main plot is almost always formulaic, with Don Matteo one step ahead of the local Carabinieri and usually being able to confront the criminal and persuade him or her to confess just as the blue flashing lights arrive. The comic sub-plots are more varied, but tend to centre on the actions of either the Carabinieri sergeant or Don Matteo’s housekeeper, both played by well-known Italian comedy actors.

My Italian is good enough to grasp almost all of an average episode of Don Matteo, including the jokes, although I sometimes need to note down individual words or phrases so that I can look them up later. That’s why I now know the Italian for slut, asshole and liar. But there is a catch. In order to pick up all the dialogue, I have to have the subtitles for the deaf on the screen. I can read Italian far better than I can hear it.

The same applies when I watch Commissario Montalbano in the Italian version, rather than the BBC’s English-subtitled one. The programme is set in Sicily, but I’m pretty sure that the Sicilian dialect is toned way down in it. Even so, the Italian subtitles are more standard than the real dialogue, which means that when the text doesn’t match the words I get a little bit of the flavour of how Sicilian is different.

commissario montalbanoUnlike Don Matteo in the real town of Gubbio, the show follows the original novels on which it’s based in having the fictional town of “Vigàta” as its setting. Montalbano is “Commissario” or Chief of Police in Vigàta. (For some reason, the BBC decided to demote Montalbano to mere Inspector, which to me makes the relative ranks in the police station inconsistent and confusing.)

In the television version, Vigàta is represented by the real town of Ragusa (even though the author really had Porto Empedocle in mind) while Montalbano’s beachfront house is in Punta Secca, which stands in for the fictional “Marinella”. While I haven’t yet been to Sicily, I have had a browse on Google’s Street View and found, not only the house, but Montalbano’s favourite seafood restaurant. (In fact, they’re less than 100m apart, rather than the short drive that the programmes would have you believe.)

The plots in Montalbano are mainly based on those from the novels by Camilleri, who is a very highly-respected author in Italy. As you might expect, then, they are somewhat more sophisticated than the comedy melodrama of Don Matteo. But still, the programmes are not without humour, although the slapstick antics of Constable Catarella don’t amuse me much, in spite of them being popular in Italy.

On a few occasions I’ve watched the Italian version and then the English-subtitled version immediately after, just to make sure that there was nothing I had missed, or had misunderstood, and I’ve been satisfied with my abilities to understand. But the crunch will come when I try one I haven’t previously seen and turn the Italian subtitles off. Buona fortuna!

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