by Roderick Conway Morris

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Mario Tursi/ASC
Claudia Cardinale in Visconti's 'Il Gattopardo', 1963

How Italian Cinema came to be Dominated by the Dubbers

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 18 December 1992


To dub or not to dub has never been the question in Italy - or not until now. For decades every foreign film entering the country has been dubbed into Italian, with subtitled versions appearing on cinema and television screens only once in a blue moon. Less well known is the fact that Italian filmmakers also have habitually dubbed on the entire Italian soundtrack after shooting has been completed, frequently using voices other than those of the actors on the screen. Even a star like Claudia Cardinale, for example, in the Italian version of Visconti's 'The Leopard,' is not, as it were, herself when it comes to the soundtrack.

The original insistence on dubbing all foreign films may date back to Mussolini's chauvinist nationalism, but why were postwar Italian directors so devoted to dubbing the local product?

'One factor was the nature of equipment they were using,' said Stephen Natanson, a young director and graduate of the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, Cinecitta's film school. 'A lot of it was basically war surplus, and most cameras were so noisy it was impossible to record live sound.'

So, whereas many a Hollywood star of the silent era came a cropper with the advent of the talkies - as swashbuckling macho heroes turned out to speak in piping trebles and vampish femmes fatales to have voices like dentists' drills - Italian directors could merrily go on casting on appearance alone.

Knowing that the voice could be replaced, often by stage actors judged too old or insufficiently attractive for the screen, 'directors could afford to adopt the attitude: 'She's got a beautiful body, even if she doesn't know how to talk, how to perform with her voice,' said Paolo Biondo, the general manager of International Recording in central Rome, Italy's busiest single dubbing and post-production studio, which handles around 120 foreign and 30 Italian films annually (out of a total of about 350 shown in the peninsula's cinemas).

Reliance on post-production sound was given an additional push, said Biondo, by the arrival of the phenomenon of international co-production, where actors from half a dozen countries might end up speaking their own languages on the set, to be dubbed afterward into the languages of the various countries where the film was to released.

'In the 1960s and '70s,' Biondo said, 'which were the 'swinging years' of Italian production - of Fellini, Visconti and others - I would say that a hundred percent of the pictures were completely re-voiced afterwards.'

Of what Biondo called the 'dubbing countries' (that is, France, Germany, Italy and Spain), Italy has, he said, by far the biggest industry with something like 1,200 dubbers. Dubbing a foreign-language work, from casting the 'voices' to finished print, takes four to six weeks and costs an average of $50,000.

Professional dubbers, many of whom are the children of dubbers and who, unlike their colleagues in other countries, seldom do any other acting work, make big money. An in-demand dubber can easily make $200,000 a year, and one like Ferruccio Amendola, who 'voices' Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Sylvester Stallone and Robert de Niro, is reckoned to earn some $4 million.

'Dubbing', said Stephen Natanson, 'has become the most important part of the film industry in Italy. It's become the motor that's running it.'

Yet the dubbing juggernaut, after years of trundling inexorably on its way, is now being seriously challenged.

'It's become fashionable', Natanson said, 'for younger directors to say they're going to shoot live sound - though there is the problem that Italian film crews don't know how to keep quiet on the set and are in the habit of talking during takes.'

Biondo agreed that the new generation was turning away from the old system: 'A director like Fellini wouldn't choose production sound even if he had the best possibilities to get it. That's not his art. He likes to change things, to put words into people's mouths without them even saying them. He doesn't even want the actors to know what they're going to say next. Whereas a film like Gabriele Salvatores' 'Mediterraneo' (which won an Oscar for best foreign film) was substantially shot with live sound.'

At the same time there is evidence of a subtle shift toward the Anglo-American assumption that what you hear ought to be what you see. Gina Lollobrigida caused a rumpus when she alleged that Francesca Dallera, her voluptuous co-star in a television version of Moravia's 'La Romana', had been dubbed by another actress. And the recent revelation that the outside scenes in the last films of Totò (Italy's Charlie Chaplin) had been dubbed by an anonymous substitute - not because the actor's voice had deteriorated but because his eyesight became so poor he could no longer follow his own lips on the dubbing screen - was a main news story here.

Whereas a few years ago it was virtually impossible to find a cinema showing foreign films with the original soundtrack and subtitles, an increasing number have been taking the plunge. The Nuovo Sacher in Rome's Trastevere district, previously a distinctly run-down establishment, has been tastefully refurbished with a bar, potted palms and plush seats, and has been attracting respectable numbers of cinema-goers to watch subtitled versions of films such as Alexandre Rockwell's 'In the Soup' and Orson Welles' reissued 'Othello'. The Alcazar, and others, have also been joining in the experiment. Meanwhile, in Milan, the Anteo, Arcobaleno and Mexico are showing original versions at least one night a week.

Despite the prevailing wisdom that Italian mass audiences will never accept subtitles, even the highly commercial end of the market is making moves in that direction. Media mogul Silvio Berlusconi's empire includes production and distribution companies, and with nearly 200 screens owned directly or for which it does the programming, Berlusconi's Cinema 5 chain is by far Italy's largest.

'I myself', said Sandro Pierotti, Cinema 5's managing director, 'much prefer to see films in the original version.' The chain's new multiscreen Maestoso cinema in Rome, which opened in September, is already showing subtitled films. Also, said Pierotti, a new, super-plush ninth screen at their Odéon cinema in Milan will be inaugurated just before Christmas, and will be used exclusively to show original versions.

'If I can prove it can be done successfully in Rome and Milan, then obviously we'll extend it to other places,' he said.

Pierotti said that he had recently been to Portugal, where he was immediately struck by how many more people spoke English and how much better than in Italy. One of the main reasons for this, as he saw it, was that films were shown there in original versions.

State television still puts out a parsimonious one original version midnight movie a week (Sundays, on RAI 3). Since April Tele+1, a pay-TV movie channel, has been offering the option on half a dozen films a month of switching from the dubbed to the original version - with the avowed aim of both giving a more authentic experience and attracting language learners. An English language version with English subtitles is also available.

'If television goes for subtitles,' said Paolo Biondo, in his office at International Recording, 'the film industry will probably go into subtitles too.'

With subtitling costing only a fifth to a tenth of dubbing and young Italian directors abandoning the practice, Italy's dubbers may yet find the previously invincible fortress of their monopoly crumbling beneath their feet.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024