For many North Americans, dubbed film dialogue evokes badly done kung fu movies, and most of us would prefer reading subtitles to watching Penélope Cruz lip-synch English in Volver. But in western Europe, particularly Italy, where dubbing movies has been commonplace since the beginning of sound in film, it has evolved into an art. Italy is widely recognized as an industry leader, and its best practitioners were honoured last weekend at the first International Dubbing Awards. Some 1,650 people attended the gala in Rome (where at least 90 per cent of Italy’s dubbing is produced), including foreign guests like Oscar-winning actor F. Murray Abraham.
The high quality of Italian dubbing is due in part to new digital technology such as audio ambience “filters,” which can be applied to the dubbed tracks to differentiate the acoustics and allow for a more authentic marriage of original sound, atmosphere, effects and music with the replaced dialogue. But as Pino Insegno, a seasoned dubbing actor who spearheaded the awards, explains, “Just as a good surgeon needs more than a steady hand, so a good dubber needs more than a decent voice; they also need great technique, perfect diction and strong acting skills.” These voice actors can become famous in their own right, like Maria Pia Di Meo, who won the award for best female dubber, as well as the people’s choice award, for her voice-over of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.
Though dubbing certainly has its detractors, Italian audiences are given few opportunities to know what they’re missing: virtually all foreign TV shows and movies they watch are dubbed. It all goes back to the Fascist 1930s when Benito Mussolini, in an effort to nationalize film and unite a country divided by dialects, decreed dubbing—in a standardized Italian—the only way foreign films could be viewed. As the late screenwriter and journalist Ennio Flaiano once quipped: “Italian is a language spoken only by dubbers.” M
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