Italy has a long and strong tradition in film dubbing and lip sync, to the point that it has probably developed the most important class of “dubbers” in the world. It all started with the first Italian films, where expressive actors who were not blessed with particularly captivating voices were dubbed by others, to the point often the lines of the script were not even actually spoken during filming. Foreign films of course were also translated and dubbed, as subtitles were not really appreciated, despite being used by distribution companies. This allowed a production cost saving, but also a more controlled sound ambience.
The tradition has a long and professional history: when you think of dubbing, and picture American stars with Italian voices, don’t think about cheesy Japanese B movies, but rather the high end productions of 3D animated films, such as the Toy Story trilogy with Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, or Megamind starring an amazing Brad Pitt.
Italian audiences, for over half a century and through four generations, got used to watching movies, whose dialogues had been recorded in post-production. This created the perfect environment for the shaping of a school of lip syncing that generated marvelous actors, specialized only in dubbing.
The talent of these performers reached such high levels that they were and continue to be able to perfectly replicate the tones and the style of the original actors. Some of these voice-performers are capable of playing several actors, and change their own voice accordingly. One famous, and probably the biggest, lip sync artist in Italian history, Ferruccio Amendola, dubbed Sylvester Stallone, Al Pacino, and Robert DeNiro, and he always caught the true soul and spirit of their acting. It is important to mention that even very talented and famous Italian actors often venture into lip syncing and dub their foreign counterparts. A perfect example is Giancarlo Giannini, probably the finest living Italian actor today, and the official Italian voice of Al Pacino for over a decade.
Another great actor, Oreste Lionello deserves special mention; Lionello was a fantastic comedian and the official Italian voice of Woody Allen, but he also dubbed Hollywood icons like Charlie Chaplin and Peter Sellers. Lionello started a family tradition and his daughter Cristiana has given her voice to Sharon Stone and Cate Blanchett, along with many other amazing American actresses, following in her father’s footsteps. Some others became famous due to the fame of the people they dubbed, creating a career without ever really performing with their own face.
Now, the big argument is really about whether a film should be translated and watched with voices other than the originals. Clearly, foreign movies always present a language barrier to the public, and arise the consequent need to deliver understandable dialogues. Italy culturally rejects the use of subtitles because Italians feel that cinema is a visual art and reading while watching creates a distraction and takes a viewer’s attention off the artistic representation a motion picture embodies. By dubbing movies, though, the public may often loose subtleties, accents and nuances only truly available in the original version. An Italian lip sync cannot reproduce a true Bostonian or Southern accent, simply because they don’t exist in Italy.
Let’s think of Brad Pitt in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, where his character had a great Southern accent. This accent, and the meaning it conveyed in the film, were sadly lost in the Italian version. Similarly, in masterpieces such as The Godfather or Goodfellas, where the original versions are all about going back and forth between English and Italian, the cultural and social pattern so heavily depicted in the originals by means of code switching is lost in a fully Italian version.
Due to the increasing number of Italians speaking different languages and foreigners attending shows, a few movie theaters nowadays offer films in their original versions. The problem ultimately found its best solution when DVDs and digital/satellite TV arrived. With new technologies, it is possible to switch between languages in a matter of seconds, as well as choosing to display subtitles, also featured in different languages. This allows everyone to choose the preferred way to watch a movie or, should we say, listening to it.