No speak-a de English

Sub­ti­tles are fea­tur­ing more and more in US movies, but some peo­ple still don’t like read­ing when they go to the cin­ema, says Joe Grif­fin

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

THERE IS an amus­ing list of movie cliches that’s been do­ing the rounds via e-mail for about a decade now. One of its most mem­o­rable ob­ser­va­tions claims: “To pass as a Nazi in a war movie, you don’t need to speak Ger­man, just speak English with a Ger­man ac­cent.”

Things are chang­ing, though, thanks in no small part to Mel Gib­son’s The Pas­sion of the Christ. Spo­ken in Old Latin and Ara­maic, the film demon­strated that if au­di­ences like a film’s sub­ject mat­ter enough, sub­ti­tles will not de­ter them. In­deed, The Pas­sion of the Christ was one of the most suc­cess­ful films (in any lan­guage) of 2004.

A few years be­fore­hand, Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Dragon com­bined awe­some mar­tial arts, un­abashed ro­man­ti­cism and pe­riod re­spectabil­ity, all of which con­trib­uted to its healthy US box of­fice take of more than $100 mil­lion. The pro­lif­er­a­tion of art­house cine­mas and in­creased avail­abil­ity of for­eign movies on DVD played a part, but Crouch­ing Tiger’s suc­cess tran­scended niche au­di­ences.

So did Roberto Benigni’s Holo­caust com­edy Life Is Beau­ti­ful. The good­will and snow­balling pub­lic­ity of the bit­ter­sweet film tugged at the heart­strings suf­fi­ciently for au­di­ences to over­look the sub­ti­tles.

But sub­ti­tles still carry a stigma. Film crit­ics and cin­ema en­thu­si­asts are of­ten shel­tered from main­stream cin­ema­go­ers’ tastes, and even a cur­sory glance at the mar­ket­ing of a film high­lights how antsy stu­dios are. As Don­ald Clarke pointed out on th­ese pages, many for­eign films have trail­ers de­void of di­a­logue for fear of scaring pun­ters away. Posters in Ir­ish cine­mas of­ten have hastily at­tached pages warn­ing that a film is not in English, cau­tion­ary notes some­times ap­pear in list­ings, and, on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions, the ticket ven­dors have warned me “You do know that this one is sub­ti­tled?”

Pre­sum­ably, there’s still lot of ou­traged cus­tomers de­mand­ing their money back af­ter be­ing conned into see­ing a non-English-lan­guage film. Con­se­quently, the trailer for the forth­com­ing Valk­erie looks aw­fully old-fash­ioned, with Tom Cruise’s Amer­i­can ac­cent clashing in­con­gru­ously with Ken­neth Bran-

Na­tive di­alect helped give Mad Mel’s film a won­der­fully other-worldly qual­ity.

An au­da­cious de­ci­sion to make it in Latin and Ara­maic proved the right one.

This Amer­i­can pro­duc­tion was re­spect­ful enough to have the Afghani ac­tors speak their own lan­guage.


The non-Yanks speak the first few lines in their own lan­guage, then English the rest of the time? Make up your mind, peo­ple!

Adapt­ing this beloved novel in English might have been for­giv­able, had the pro­duc­ers not cast Chi­nese ac­tors to play the lead Ja­panese char­ac­ters – in heavy ac­cents.

Roberto Benigni’s first film af­ter Life Is Beau­ti­ful was not sub­ti­tled, but dubbed. Badly. agh’s RADA voice (both play Ger­mans). Valk­erie might turn out to be a fine film, but if it doesn’t work, the ac­cent is­sue will be an­other stick for the me­dia to beat Cruise with.

It’s a judge­ment call, of course – no­body ex­pected Brad Pitt to speak Greek in Troy, for ex­am­ple. But US pro­duc­tions such as The Pas­sion of the Christ, Apoca­lypto and The Kite Run­ner opted to tell their sto­ries in the orig­i­nal lan­guage. In each case, it felt in­fin­itely more au­then­tic and made sim­i­lar films with English-speak­ing ac­tors look rel­a­tively hack­neyed and dated.

Even ac­tion movies are get­ting in on it. Tony Scott’s aw­ful Man on Fire had the English sub­ti­tles danc­ing across the screen and ap­pear­ing be­side the ac­tors’ faces like speech bub­bles in a comic strip, and more and more main­stream films have the for­eign char­ac­ters speak­ing their na­tive lan­guage be­hind closed doors.

We’ll never be fully rid of ze funny ac­cents, but for film­go­ers who want their movies more au­then­tic, the past few years have proven promis­ing.

Was ist los? The cast of Valkyrie (from left): Kevin McNally, Chris­tian Berkel, Bill Nighy, Tom Cruise, Ter­rence Stamp, David Schofield and Ken­neth Bran­nagh

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