We’ve talked about “italsimpatia” often in this column, yet this is the first time we’ve stopped to appreciate it in the media, in this instance on the online streaming service by production company Netflix. Master of None is unique in the italianità of the second season’s trailer: set to Peppino di Capri’s “Il nostro concerto,” it opens in black and white, and our hero Dev Shah (actor and series co-creator, Aziz Ansari) is riding a bicycle on cobblestone streets. Reminiscent of De Sica, no? We’re very aware of the Italian setting, then suddenly, we’re transported to New York, then back to Italy, then New York, then in some scenes the two seem to meld and you’re not clear as to where you are yet you’re immersed. There’s beauty and friendship, family and love: the passion for all things Italian is sublimely interpreted on screen.
For those who aren’t familiar with the series, Master of None is the personal and professional life story of Dev, a 30 something actor in New York. He’s Indian American, a foodie who after a break up relocates temporarily to Italy to learn to make pasta. In the second season, we find him in Modena, home of “tortellini in brodo”, at the “Boutique del Tortellino.” His closest friend is Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi), granddaughter of the pasta shop owner, and her boyfriend Pino (Riccardo Scamarico), who is in the tile business. At the end of Dev’s three-month apprenticeship making “pasta fresca,” he returns to New York to hang out with his friends, move ahead in his career, and find a relationship. This season, Italy permeates six of the ten episodes in very meaningful ways in Dev’s life.
It starts with the mellifluous sound of Italian, launched by “The Thief,” the first five minutes of which are almost exclusively in Italian (with English subtitles). The first episode flows easily from Italian to English and back to Italian as the story unfolds. There is the occasional apology from Dev, “Mi dispiace non parlo italiano molto bene” (I’m sorry. I don’t speak Italian that well), and his repeated query “come si dice…?” (how do you say…?), as is common for people learning a new language. Likewise, the more a person learns, the more inclined he will be to play with the language. Dev is no exception. Over coffee with native speakers, he gets creative with Italian and suggests replying to “grazie mille” (thanks a thousand) with “prego mille” (you’re welcome a thousand). Word borrowing, another common creative use of language learners, is credited to Arnold (Dev’s best friend visiting from the U.S.) at a wedding. He tells the bride she looks “gorgissimo” (a combination of English ‘gorgeous’ and the superlative Italian suffix, –issimo). Being creative with language is both entertaining and enlightening, even for viewers thousands of miles away who may not know a word of Italian.
How important is the Italian language to Master of None? Aziz Ansari didn’t just memorize scripted lines for the episodes in which he speaks Italian (as is common for actors); he actually moved to Italy before filming to do research for the second season, and worked in restaurants and learned how to speak Italian by taking lessons for three weeks and by living the language. He was very involved in the translation of the the script from English to Italian, and asked his Italian speaking cast to be involved too. Alessandra Mastronardi shared with Vanity Fair how he would insist she change what was written in the script if she, a native speaker of Italian, didn’t feel it. So she did, and the end result is a more genuine Italian.
Verbal and nonverbal features permeate various episodes of Master of None. In Modena, there’s Francesca’s lesson on the use of gestures, prompted by her nephew Mario, who tells Dev the lasagna was delicious while pressing his index finger into his chubby cheek. In New York, Francesca gives Dev an amusing lesson on cursing. She says “merda” when the contents of an e-joint (electronic cigarette for marijuana) she and Dev were sharing finishes. Dev, who can’t believe they didn’t teach him any bad words while he was living in Modena, teases her and calls her evil.
Subtitles and language choice in dialogues also garner some attention. Given this writer’s experience with subtitling, it’s fascinating to detect a pattern in the omission of certain words in the English subtitles, as if the viewer already has some knowledge of Italian. Not surprising since, as indicated previously in this column, Italian is a language that is both recognized and used in New York. Words like “andiamo” (let’s go), “basta” (enough), “bellissima” (very beautiful), “certo” (sure), “ciao” (hello/good-bye), “mamma mia!” (oh my!), and “mi dispiace” (sorry), for the most part, are not subtitled. Some Italian words just don’t need translation, especially when it comes to food! In addition to making his own tortellini, Dev is treated to tortellini and more at the restaurant ranked best in the world in 2016, Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana.
When it comes to language choice, it’s also interesting to note when, how and why Italian is spoken, to say what to whom. Clearly, when Dev is in Italy (the first two episodes of season 2), much more Italian is spoken for obvious reasons, also because many locals were hired instead of professional actors. When Francesca arrives in New York, we notice a more deliberate use of English. Language takes a back seat to culture – the comparisons made between Italy and the U.S. (take for example, Francesca’s shopping spree in an American pharmacy) and the defining of random English words and expressions are quite humorous. In some episodes, using Italian or switching between Italian and English seems to have a specific purpose.
In New York, Italian is used exclusively in exchanges between Francesca and her fiancé Pino, from text messages to private conversations to a public difference of opinion the night of Pino’s birthday party. Between Francesca and Dev, there is much teasing of the other’s foreign language skills which, according to them, neither speaks well. Italian is used more when there are courtship moments, as they live out some parts of their fantasy (platonically, of course) in Italian: there is always music and language. In the tenth episode, Dev in Italian asks Francesca is she wants to listen music and also to dance; Francesca replies affirmatively in Italian to both, then switches to English to announce she will choose the song (the choice: Mina’s “Un anno d’amore,” a year of love). Be it the translation of song lyrics or making moves using the language of seduction, they switch freely between Italian and English, sharing linguistic intimacy in a world that assuages differences in American and Italian language and culture.
Language shapes culture and culture influences language, as evidenced by the some of the episodes’ titles. Le Nozze (The Wedding), Amarsi un po’ (To Love Each Other a Little) and Buona Notte (Goodnight) give some insight as to the theme of the episodes while also highlighting Italian culture. In particular, maintaining Italian in these titles is significant, given they are not words that are found in common parlance, nor are they cognates. They speak to a passion for Italy and Italian represented cinematographically and musically. On Dev’s nightstand in the opening scene of the new season, there is a stack of DVDs that has a two-fold purpose: to reflect Dev’s passions for Italian cinema, and to foretell how Italy will be interpreted in season 2. The Bicycle Thief, La notte, La dolce vita, 8 ½, Amarcord, and L’avventura are referenced or imitated in various episodes, as are Il sorpasso and L’eclisse, adding a rich layer of culture and diversity to Dev’s life. Now add to these movies the accompanying Italian soundtrack of certain episodes. In addition to the visual storytelling, we delight in the sounds of Mina, Ennio Morricone, Piero Umiliani, Pino D’Angiò, Sergio Endrigo, Edoardo Vianello, and Lucio Battisti. As the music supervisor of Master of None proclaimed in an interview with Vulture: “It’s a love letter to Italy this season.”
In Natalia Ginzburg’s epistolary novel Caro Michele (in English, No Way), one of her characters writes, “One of the rare pleasures in life is to compare the descriptions of others with our fantasies and then with the reality.” Master of None captures this exquisitely. Each detail carefully selected for each episode shapes an Italy that Dev loves (its food, friends, passion, tradition, scenery, movies, music, language), and those fantasies of Italy we share with him. Then there is the reality of Italy (and America). Viewers, be prepared to be enchanted by the Master of None characters and episodes, and to appreciate their narrative, in both English and Italian.