In certain situations, it’s important to put one’s best foot forward, to make a good impression. In Italian, that’s fare bella figura, or simply, fare figura. For example:
Le sue scarpe sono costate poco, ma fanno figura.
Her shoes didn’t cost very much, but they make her look good (or, “they make a good impression”).
Fare bella figura (making a good impression) isn’t always possible though. Sometimes, without meaning to, you botch it and make a bad impression, or worse, are embarrassed by something you did or said. And that’s when you use brutta figura (bad impression). Just as bella is often left to our imagination, in this case, too, it’s common to leave off the brutta. To determine whether someone’s talking about a good or bad figura, pay close attention to the context, as well as to the speaker’s inflection and facial expression.
O mamma mia! Mamma mia, che figura che ho fatto.
Oh dear! Oh dear, what a bad impression I've made.Play Caption
In the following example, a couple is going to a birthday party and neither of them remembered to take the birthday present.
Ma guarda te che figura! Ti rendi conto che siamo a mani vuote? Che figura facciamo?
Look what a [bad] impression we'll make! Do you realize we are empty-handed? What kind of impression will we make?
Captions 18-20, Un Figlio a tutti i costi film - Part 19Play Caption
Note: The fact that there’s no article here is normal for this idiom, but in some cases, an article or other modifier will be included for clarity or emphasis.
What about when someone puts you in an embarrassing situation, or makes you look like a fool? Ti fa fare brutta figura (he/she makes you make a bad impression).
In an episode of Medico in Famiglia, Maria has gone missing, and her parents call her supposed boyfriend to find out where she is. He’s not her boyfriend, though, so just imagine how embarrassed she is upon discovering they’d called him.
Mi avete fatto fare questa figura?
You made me make a bad impression? [Did you make me look stupid?]
Caption 62, Un medico in famiglia - s.1 e.1 - Casa nuovaPlay Caption
Maria’s brother has a retort ready with a play on words. He uses a more neutral definition of figura (figure, person, appearance, impression):
Non hai fatto nessuna figura perché quello, a te, non ti vede proprio! -Eh, bambini...
You made no impression at all because that one doesn't even see you! -Uh, kids...
Captions 63-64, Un medico in famiglia - s.1 e.1 - Casa nuovaPlay Caption
Another expression that’s used a lot in relational conversations comes from the verb figurare (to appear, to be, to show). This expression can be used as a sort of antidote to someone’s feeling as if they’re making or have made a brutta figura. It uses the reflexive form figurarsi (to imagine).
If you apologize for being late, or if you ask if you are disturbing someone, the response might likely be figurati! (of course not!). The person saying it is attempting to put you at ease, for example after you forgot a dinner date.
E tu lo trovi leale accettare un invito a cena e poi non presentarsi? -Non ti ho avvertito? Scusami. Ci sei rimasto male? -Figurati, la cena era ottima.
And do you find it loyal to accept a dinner invitation and then not come? -Didn't I let you know? Sorry. Did you feel hurt? -Of course not, the dinner was excellent.
Captions 6-9, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP3 - Rapsodia in Blu - Part 3Play Caption
At the same time, it can mean something like “no way!” or “yeah, right!” or “don’t count on it!”:
C'hai paura? Paura io? Ma figurati.
What, are you scared? Scared, me? Don't count on it.
Captions 44-46, Il Commissario Manara S1EP3 - Rapsodia in Blu - Part 17Play Caption
Watch and listen to the Yabla videos where these expressions are present (do a search of both figura and figurati). Hide the translation. Listen for the inflection. Is the speaker trying to put someone at ease, or being ironic? When no adjective is present for describing the figura, which do you think it is?
Meanwhile, imagine a situation—invent a dialogue. Here’s something to get you started.
Ti ho fatto fare brutta figura? -Ma figurati, ho fatto la figura dello scemo tutto da solo.
Did I embarrass you? -Of course not, I came off as an idiot all by myself.
Devo dire che quegli orecchini da due soldi fanno figura! -Grazie, ma questa giacca vecchissima, che figura fa? -Beh, per me, fai sempre una bellissima figura.
I gotta say, those cheap earrings happen to look really nice! -Thanks, but this super old jacket, how does that make me look? -Well, to me, you always look great!
Che figura! Quando sono arrivata alla cassa, non avevo abbastanza soldi per pagare.
How embarrassing! When I got to the check out, I didn’t have enough money to pay.
Il capo mi darà un aumento, sicuro! -Figurati!
The boss is going to give me a raise, for sure! -Yeah, right. (or, “Don’t count on it!”)
Divertitevi! (Have fun!)