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
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.
SPEAK WITH FORKED TONGUE
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