Commentary — May 4, 2012, 2:00 pm

The Real Lives of Italian Dubbers

Chiara Barzini is a screenwriter living in Rome. Her debut fiction collection, Sister Stop Breathing, was published by Calamari Press in February.

In her May essay for Harper’s, “Read My Lips: The Italian art of dubbing,” Chiara Barzini traces the Italian fervor for film dubbing. Nearly all foreign films are dubbed in Italy, not to mention some Italian ones (Fellini was a fan of the technique), and voice actors are tracked with the same intensity as Hollywood stars in the United States. We asked Barzini to write a few stargazing sketches for us from Italy:

Behind the Laughter

Whenever Italians catch the sound of Cristina Boraschi’s voice, they insist that she complain about “slippery little suckers” like Julia Roberts in the escargot scene from Pretty Woman. Ferruccio Amendola used to go about Rome reciting the ’fanculo scene from Taxi Driver—his fans created a medley of his best fuck-yous on Facebook after he died. Tonino Accolla, meanwhile, has conquered generations of bartenders near Rome’s Technicolor studios by laughing like Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop. Unfortunately, laughs didn’t pay Accolla’s 1,000-euro tab for caffes and aperitivos. The bartenders at the café where he ran up this bill were was so upset they asked the satirical TV show Le Iene to track Accolla down (see the video on this page, starting at the 2:30 mark). Confronted with the bill by one of the show’s hosts, Accolla, whose personal habits have been much gossiped about in Italy, admitted that he had spent most of his dubbing money. Then he drove off in his Austin Mini.

America the Bruttiful

During the 1990s, the film critic and dubbing scholar Claudio G. Fava worked for Rai Television, for whom he imported the manic American soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful—titling it simply Beautiful. If you didn’t live in Italy in the Nineties you can’t possibly understand the Beautiful phenomenon, known by some as the Bruttiful (Uglyful) phenomenon because it transformed Italians into American-power-obsessed zombies. Houses grew silent at lunchtime as episodes aired, with families gathering religiously around dining tables with their TVs turned on. Children’s afternoon sports classes were carefully timed so no one would miss a scene from Eric Forester’s compound, and waves of new parents named their babies Brooke, Ridge, or Thorn, after the soap’s protagonists.

In 1994, the first year I lived in the United States, my friends back in Rome forced me to fax them plot summaries of the episodes airing in America so they would know in advance what would happen to who. America was hundreds of episodes ahead, so the information didn’t help them much—some characters from the American episodes hadn’t yet been born on the Italian dubs.

Beautiful’s success in Italy derived, I suspect, from the grand voices of the Forrester family. Their sound—so regal and controlled—told us that everything we suspected about America was true: it was a place where good and evil were two distinct forces working against each other, and where people were fashionable and rich. Dubbing directors were careful to pick voices that matched the mythological characteristics of the actors they played. Ridge Forester, the sensitive playboy played by Ron Moss, was given the sexy, husky voice of Claudio Capone; the combination of Moss’s physical charisma and Capone’s voice created a kind of American–Italian sex god. Capone’s voice, Fava told me, was so fetishized by Italian women that the actor had to change his home phone number because they were calling him obsessively just to hear his voicemail message.

Potter’s Day

The success of a foreign movie in Italy depends on its ability to transfer the spirit of another language into Italian. Italy’s best dubbing director and adapter, Francesco Vairano, is known for his ability to work with films thought to be undubbable and unadaptable, such as the French hit comedy Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, which relies for much of its humor on misunderstandings between French-speakers and speakers of the regional Picard (or Ch’ti) language. Vairano has also directed dubbings of English period films, like Kenneth Branagh’s full-text Hamlet and last year’s Best Picture Oscar-winner, The King’s Speech.

A purist, Vairano has tenaciously maintained the original Italian voices throughout the entire Harry Potter saga. One of the original voice actors for the series, Giulio Renzi Ricci, who plays Ron Weasley, is now twenty-three and living in London, where he works in finance. Vairano has convinced him to come back every for every film in the series—a gratifying feat for Italy’s legions of obsessive Potter fans, who invited the voice team to Harry Potter’s Day in Veneto every year from 2004 to 2009. The festival, the first European gathering for Potter fans, was considered culturally relevant enough in Italy for the government to spend money funding it. Featuring talent shows, workshops, and a look-alike competition, the highlight of the event was traditionally the dubbers’ performance:

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More from Chiara Barzini:

From the May 2012 issue

Read my lips

The Italian art of dubbing

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Nobody in academia had ever witnessed or even heard of a performance like this before. In just a few years, in the early 1950s, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student — a student, in his twenties — had taken over an entire field of study, linguistics, and stood it on its head and hardened it from a spongy so-called “social science” into a real science, a hard science, and put his name on it: Noam Chomsky.

At the time, Chomsky was still finishing his doctoral dissertation for Penn, where he had completed his graduate-school course work. But at bedtime and in his heart of hearts he was living in Boston as a junior member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, and creating a Harvard-level name for himself.

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