Dubbing Danger

Isabella Bolognese
Feb 1, 2018 · 6 min read
My favourite indie cinema theatre in Rome: the Greenwich in Rione Testaccio.

‘The Cinema!? Count me in!’

I was ecstatic. I hadn’t been to a cinema in what felt like centuries. It was actually just under a year, but that last time had been an isolated event in which I’d walked into a beautiful little indie cinema house in Rome to escape the afternoon heat, and begged my way into a darkened room where the movie had been running for over 30 minutes, and I had to leave 45 minutes later so that I wouldn’t be late for my appointment. I only recently saw the rest of it.

When I was little I loved the cinema. I went to all the new action blockbusters with my friend Stephanie from school or with one of my many brothers. My mum would drive us there and give me enough cash for a ticket and a bus home. I collected the posters, either asking for them at the box office or buying them for 50c at the local video rental store. I’d pasted them all over my bedroom walls and ceiling, much to the annoyance of my dear mother, who hated having to polish Tom Cruise’s samurai-gear-clad face with my linen whenever she dressed my bed with clean sheets. But bless her, she never took them down, and left it to me to grow out of that bedroom arrangement in my mid 20s.

It was around then that I moved back to Europe and stopped being so religious about cinema-going. Partly this was because at university in the UK I tended to prioritize using what little cash I had to fund the local ale and whiskey industry. It was also partly because I started to grow out of my love of action blockbusters, and, later, when I moved back to Italy, I didn’t really get the base and/or politically-charged humour of Italian movies.

But mostly in the last few years it has been because my bilingual brain can’t stand the violent dubbing practiced so ruthlessly by Italians, and the vast unavailability of movie theatres providing original language screenings.

Example of Italians du(m)bbing it down: ‘If you leave me I delete you’ somehow just doesn’t have the same poetic effect as the original.

So when my friends proposed a trip to a cinema in a nearby town to see an Italian movie which had received several Oscar nominations, I trusted their better judgment, did no research on the film, and risked family-excommunication by cancelling on the much-anticipated extended family get together at our house that evening in favour of this movie night.

The movie was ‘Call Me by Your Name’, or ‘Chiamami col tuo nome’, as it had been presented to me. In retrospect this constituted the grounds for double-excommunication in my traditionalist conservative household.

As we drove the narrow country road to Gioia del Colle (where the nearest multi-hall cinema resides), my friends Michele and Raffaele told me a little about what we were going to see (to the melancholic soundtrack of a newly-discovered James Blake on Michele’s car’s shifty sound system). They mentioned other movies by the same director, his style and renown. ‘Will I know any of the actors?’, I asked, ‘You might, we don’t, they’re not Italian’. ‘They’re not? But it is in Italian, right?’, ‘Well, it’s dubbed of course! The director is Italian, but the cast is all Hollywood!’. I half-jokingly asked them to stop the car and take me back home. Only half-jokingly.

I can’t stomach dubbed films (in case I hadn’t made this clear already). I respect the delicate profession of the dubber, and what it can bring to a movie, but it really needs to be done right, and you can tell when it is, because you barely notice it. Dubbing in Italy made sense historically: Italians were masters of the art in the early days of film because most of the population was illiterate up until barely 50 years ago, and couldn’t be expected to read subtitles or understand another language. But nowadays children are taught English from primary school, and if young people struggle with English in Italy (and they do) it is also because, unlike in other European countries, they insist on dubbing everything on TV and the silver screen, so that exposure to foreign language is much harder to come by.

I don’t regret going to the cinema the other day at all. I did really enjoy what turned out to be an Italian version of Brokeback Mountain in bildungsroman key and the backdrop of a balmy remote northern-Italian 80s Summer. During the ride home I even correctly guessed the three awards the movie is justifiably being nominated for at the Oscars.

In fact, when I got home, I turned to the Internet to read up on it and prolong my enjoyment of the movie, and watched a few clips of the original on Youtube. I was completely shocked to find that there were entire sections in French with English subtitles, and the protagonist even switched from English to Italian to French in the same scene sometimes. Why would you not leave those parts undubbed!? I was actually seething, I could feel the spasm of my eyebrows furrowing in dismayed incredulity. This wasn’t just a subtlety of someone’s personality or of the setting that had been inevitably lost in translation, which is my usual reproach, but a very fundamental part of the plot that had been completely reinterpreted and erased.

‘I’m sorry are you speaking French to me? I couldn’t hear over all the Italian’.

We Westerners know this of ourselves: we can be lazy and egocentric when it comes to telling stories, even when they are explicitly about a diverse or minority group. Here is a movie about the unexpected realization of a young man’s sexual orientation, told in beautiful, minute, often gripping detail by a skilled team of film-makers. To me, what adds dimension and interest to the otherwise rather flat white elite academic family (the pretext for having the two men meet is that the father of this family invites a doctoral student in the summers to help him with his research into local archaeological findings) are precisely the cultural undertones which the Italian dubbing team have decided to remove.

It was unclear to me at first whether I was supposed to feel a tinge of disdain for this little oasis of white academia in the setting of a burgeoise classical country villa at the feet of the Italian Alps, or whether that was just me projecting. But I discovered in my post-viewing research that this was a deliberate choice giving further context to the protagonist’s adolescent arrogance. When he casually switches to a slurred French slang, with what turns out to be his _French_ girlfriend, on the one hand we receive further context for the protagonist’s unique social and cultural background, and, on the other, that forced youthful conceit is further reinforced through the stereotype of the haughty French-speaker, a ‘detail’ left totally untranslated in the Italian dubbed version… I mean, really? Not even an accent?

The fact that we are playing with stereotypes is all the more important to the theme and flavour of the film, and it simply won’t do to have away with it altogether and blanden what already risked being an obnoxiously monotone social setting to swallow. And why? Because the audience is believed incapable or unwilling to read a few lines of captioned text? Or because inserting those bits of text would mean hiring someone to play with the movie reel? Of course some people will prefer to watch a movie without worrying about that layer of linguistic interpretation, but I know Italians are perfectly capable of doing fabulous jobs of dubbing, and this movie, for one, deserved better.

Written by

Traveler, historian, seeker. I own three plants. Two of them are dead. Whiskey.

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