Last week, Italy’s Milena Canonero took home her fourth Oscar for Best Costume Design for her work on The Grand Budapest Hotel. But after winning the prize for Best Foreign Language Film last year with Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty), this year Italy didn’t even have an entry in that category. Disappointing.
Not that there weren’t some notable Italian films released in 2014. In fact, it’s a bit surprising that the critically acclaimed Il capital umano (Human Capital) didn’t make it to the final round of Oscar voting. Back in June, it won top prize at the David di Donatello Awards, beating out The Great Beauty. And it features several of Italy’s “A-list” talent such as Valeria Golino (Respiro) and Luigi Lo Cascio (La meglio gioventù).
Maybe it’s not that surprising after all. Allow me to make a related observation: Italian films don’t really seem all that popular among Italians. Browsing the marquees at any given cinema in Rome, you often find more American movies than Italians ones.
This also gives us a little peak into a subtle cultural idiosyncrasy that one repeatedly encounters in Italy. There’s an underlying sentiment that “everything foreign is better” (with the exception of food, of course). When something embarrassing happens in a public way—like the appointment of one of Berlusconi’s mistresses to Parliament—you hear outcries in the street, such as, “Only in Italy! This would never happen in England/Switzerland/Germany/America!” (Although, after the recent vandalism incident at The Spanish Steps involving Dutch soccer fans, you won’t hear Holland included in that list anytime soon. They made Rome’s home-grown vandals look like mere amateurs.)
Anyway, newly expatriated Americans arriving in Rome might be thrilled to initially discover that they can still watch recently released Hollywood films right in the center of the Eternal City. Well, sort of. Yes, the same films are shown—but fully dubbed into Italian. That’s right, no subtitles, but 100% dubbed. So if you don’t speak fluent Italian, don’t bother going to see the latest superhero sequel at the theater.
By the way, this goes for the imported television shows, too, and there are many. All dubbed, no subtitles.
The Art of Doppiaggio
You might ask, “Why do they dub all the films and TV shows in the first place? Wouldn’t it be better—not to mention easier—to just include subtitles?
Nowadays, yes. But when film starting becoming a popular medium in post-war Italy, the standard Italian language wasn’t as widely dispersed as it is today. Many people still only spoke their local dialect, and within the older generations, illiteracy was high. So subtitles would have been a fairly difficult chore to demand from the audience. Dubbing made more sense.
Then even as the standard language spread and literacy improved dramatically, the habit just sort of stuck around. In fact, dubbing became its own art form, and many of the “doppiatori” were as famous as the foreign actors that they spoke for. Even today, certain foreign actors have dedicated doppiatore who are under contract be their exclusive Italian voice.
For example, Francesco Pezzulli is the Italian voice of Leonardo DiCaprio, winning the 2013 prize for “Best Actor” from the Leggio d’Oro, the dubbing version of an Oscar, for his interpretation of DiCaprio’s character in Django Unchained.
Best “Actor?” Is dubbing someone else’s voice really acting? No doubt it takes talent, but I’m not sure it’s the same thing.
I wonder if Francesco and Leonardo hang out together and share acting tips. Or advice on dating Brazilian swimsuit models. But I digress…
The fact is, these actors are quite talented. I admit that my Italian isn’t perfect, but I usually have a hard time seeing a discrepancy between the mouth movements of the foreign actor, and the sounds produced by the Italian dubber. Really, it looks seamless to me.
In recent years, the one concession has been to leave only the title of the film in the original language. I guess it’s a start. But I hope that the trend changes sooner or later. Not only does it better preserve the art, but some have suggested that dubbing has contributed to the Italian population’s poor English skills, lagging far behind countries like Germany, Holland, and Norway—all countries that do NOT dub foreign movies or television shows. Coincidence?
Recently I’ve heard a rumor that there’s an Italian actor who is looking for an American man to dub his movies into English for distribution in the United States. I’m thinking about auditioning. I don’t know if my “doppiaggio” skills are up to the task, but you must admit that there’s a striking physical resemblance.
*One final note* Even though I won’t be eligible for the Leggio d’Oro award this year, I AM nominated for “The Best Overall Blog for Lovers of Italy” by Italy Magazine. If you have a minute. please click here to cast a vote for Rick’s Rome. Grazie!!