by Anthony Kaufman
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
This phrase comes to mind as Miramax re-releases “Life is Beautiful” in an English dubbed version this Friday, changing a motion picture that did just fine in the first place (grossing $220 million worldwide, a record-breaking $57 million domestic, and receiving more Academy Award nominations than any foreign-language film ever.) It is the feather in Miramax’s 1998 cap, not withstanding “Shakespeare in Love,” so why go in and meddle with such a success?
More money, of course, but that isn’t such a surprise from a film company. What else? Something worse than mere greed, perhaps? Yes, it’s misplaced good intentions, a self-righteous claim to bring foreign movies to subtitle-fearing Americans all across this great US of A, to “break down the stigma against dubbed films in this country,” said Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax Films, in a company press release.
First of all, I don’t know if there is any proof to the claim that Americans are averse to foreign-language films. Apparently, the 1982 release of Wolfgang Peterson’s “Das Boot” — the last major release to go out in both subtitled and dubbed versions — fared better at the box office in its subtitled format. Even on video, Lasse Hallstrom’s “My Life as a Dog” was more financially successful with its subtitled copies than its dubbed tapes.
So it’s not like the movie-going public are some illiterate group of simpletons. It’s not the people that are small, it’s the marketing campaigns. If Luc Besson made big-budget action-adventure movies in French and then had an American distributor behind him with major advertising buck, I doubt that audiences would not want to see the explosions and special effects just because the actors spoke in a foreign tongue. Some smart marketing exec could even try to play up the exotic appeal of a foreign film — sexy accents, lavish locations, a vacation from your usual New York/Los Angeles-shot Hollywood dud. (I’d like to see Lars von Trier’s latest “The Idiots,” for instance, stirring up controversy, ad time, and the buzz it deserves instead of laying dormant and neglected in USA Films’ vault since Cannes 1998.)
I think audiences are a lot smarter than studios give them credit for. Witness “Life is Beautiful” itself. People did go see it with subtitles. It is its own best argument for a greater openness to
foreign-language films among the public. But there goes Miramax retreating over the same ground it just covered. Two-steps forward, two-steps back. (It seems to be a trend — did someone say “Dogma” — well, that’s for another editorial.)
At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Weinstein espoused his love for foreign films. “I grew up on the great foreign language films of my life – the early Truffaut, Fellini,” he said. “These are the movies that I want to see continue to be made. As Americans we do incredibly well with our American exports on movies. If we completely dominate the local territories, then there’s not going to be local filmmakers [in foreign countries.]”
Fine. Weinstein has made it clear that he promotes foreign films; he is noted for his stance on limiting free trade to preserve other countries’ industries. “It’s the only way a foreign language cinema is going to survive,” Weinstein claimed. But these are certainly odd words from the man responsible for taking the most successful foreign language film of last year and turning it into an English language film.
Now what’s so wrong with that, anyway? Before I get to the actual oddity that is the English language dub of “Life is Beautiful,” let’s look at what dubbing does to your experience of watching a movie. The original actor’s voice is replaced with another actor’s voice, often from the country where the film is being distributed. Aside from the obvious facts that this is replacing the original actor’s vocal performance with an often inferior one, and is basically undermining the whole point of acting (can you imagine dubbing in theater?), it just looks very weird when the lips don’t match the words.
Now, of course, Germany has their own Woody Allen voice-impersonator, Italy has its Harrison Ford, Spain’s hasits own Sharon Stone (most of France’s has the common sense not to dub its films), but generally these citizens grew up with these voices matched to these actors and they’ve gotten used to the strangeness of it all. Thankfully, we are not used to it, nor should we get used to it. The “stigma against dubbed films” is a natural one. It’s like saying you have a stigma against Cheese Whiz. It’s artificial and doesn’t taste as good. If Weinstein cares about foreign movies so much, how come he’s making the Cheese Whiz instead of fostering the Brie?
As for the actual film, which I had a chance to see at a press screening (along with only one other writer — from TV Guide — you can imagine the great interest in the re-release), it’s not ruined. The voice of everyone’s favorite Italian Roberto Benigni is played by Jonathan Nichols, who did ADR on Jackie Chan’s “First Strike” and has appeared on Chicago Hope and NYPD Blue. Nichols’s Italian accent isn’t always right and his inflections are not nearly as zany as Benigni’s, but after about an hour, I began to get used to it. After all, most of Benigni’s humor is physical anyway. The voice of his wife Dora is played by Italian actress Ilaria Borrelli (Taviani Brothers’ “Sunshine Even By Night”) who is far more listenable to than Nichols. But above all, no matter how good the dubbing, it’s still dubbing and it is still a lesser experience, the voices hovering over the actor’s mouths slightly disembodied by post-production technology.
Perhaps the scariest thing about the whole dubbing is a quote from the exuberant and fun-loving Benigni in the Miramax press release. This from the man that hugged Scorsese at Cannes and played the clown at the Oscars: “Hopefully, the English version of