Italian at the Cinema, Italian in the Cinema

When cinema muto—silent films—first appeared in the early twentieth century, most Italians spoke in dialect; many were illiterate. After the lights went down in a theater, people would ask, “Who can read Italian?” and someone would shout out the titles. When talking pictures (film parlati) emerged in the 1930s, millions of Italians learned how to speak italiano standard, long used mainly by priests, scholars and aristocrats.

Diction schools, originally established to train radio announcers, churned out professional doppiatori (dubbers) for both foreign and homegrown films, a practice that continued through most of the twentieth century. In Italian theaters, international film stars like Greta Garbo, Laurel and Hardy, Gary Cooper and Mickey Mouse talked with “a Tuscan tongue in a Roman mouth”—classic Florentine pronounced with Rome’s more melodious accent.

After the grandiose promises of fascism imploded,  filmmakers lost funding, equipment and studios but found their voice. Directors and scriptwriters, ammucchiati (heaped together) as they put it, collaborated like artisans in a Renaissance bottega (workshop).  With unflinching, often-excruciating honesty, they recounted the stories Italians were telling each other about their bitter struggles through dictatorship, occupation, war and devastation.

The neorealistic movies did more than help Italy come to terms with a terrible time in its history; they gave dialects back to Italians. Rossellini’s 1946 film Paisà followed the Allies’ advance up the Italian peninsula in six episodes, each reflecting a different local dialect. Visconti’s La terra trema (The Earth Trembles), shot in 1948 with Sicilian fishermen speaking and singing in their dialect, required an Italian voice-over on the mainland.

The most famous of Italian directors, Federico Fellini, invented new words that remain in use today. Vitelloni, the title of one of his first films, referred to big overgrown calves but took on new meaning as a derogatory description of aimless young men. Paparazzi, the plural of the name with which he baptized an aggressive photographer in La Dolce Vita, became the universal word for celebrity-chasing news hounds.

American classics took on Italian names, such as Mezzogiorno di fuoco (Midday of fire) for High Noon, Via col vento for Gone with the Wind and Viale del Tramonto for Sunset Boulevard. They also added some unforgettable expressions to the Italian lexicon:

“Domani è un altro giorno” -- Rosella’s (Scarlett’s) famous line, “Tomorrow is another day”

“Francamente me ne infischio” -- Rhett’s response, “Frankly, I could care less” (Censors wouldn’t allow the phrase “I don’t give a damn.”)

“Suonala ancora, Sam” -- “Play it again, Sam,” from Casablanca

“Ma, dici a me?” -- “Are you talking to me?” from Taxi Driver  

“Che la forza sia con te”-- “May the Force be with you,” from Star Wars

“Amare significa non dover mai dire mi spiace” -- "Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” from Love Story