Review: ‘Life Is Beautiful (English dubbed version)’

The cause for dubbing foreign-language films into English for the U.S. theatrical market will receive little momentum from Miramax's Anglicizing of Robert Benigni's Oscar-winning "Life Is Beautiful."

The cause for dubbing foreign-language films into English for the U.S. theatrical market will receive little momentum from Miramax’s Anglicizing of Robert Benigni’s Oscar-winning “Life Is Beautiful.” Precisely because pic has already achieved blockbuster status among imports, there is a real question whether there remains much of an untapped aud averse to subtitles for this distinctly Italo work. Calculatedly opening a month before Sony’s Robin Williams Holocaust tragicomedy, “Jakob the Liar,” the dubbed “Life” will thrive better on home screens than on big ones, where unavoidable dubbing mismatches are much tougher on the eyes and ears. Subtitle advocates need not worry.

While this is hardly the company’s first attempt to parlay one of its foreign-lingo hits into an ostensibly bigger marketplace — “Like Water for Chocolate” and “The Postman” being the major dubbed projects — new version of Benigni’s WWII-set comedy-drama (produced by John M. Davis and directed by Rod Dean) marks the most significant effort to date.

Intro is now an English voiceover: “This is a simple story, but not an easy one to tell.” The most dramatic indicator that this dubbing is a victim of the subtitled version’s mega-success, as well as Benigni’s ubiquitous presence on U.S. airwaves, is the first time we hear the voice of Benigni’s hero, Guido. Anyone who watched the Oscars knows what Benigni’s English sounds like, and if only because this is clearly not Benigni, actor Jonathan Nichols’ voice will at first be a letdown to pic’s hard-core fans. Just as noticeable — and more unavoidable — is lack of sync between English dub and mouthed Italian, one of the more difficult Euro tongues to match closely to English speaking patterns.

While Nichols may not be Benigni, his voice grows on the listener and manages a steady course through an immense stream of dialogue. Other key leads pose far greater problems, starting with Ilaria Borrelli voicing Nicoletta Braschi’s Dora. Though the love of Guido’s life has a fraction of his lines, Borrelli’s English is close to mush, as when she proclaims, “I wash jusht like patty in heesh hahnds.”

The casting of American-sounding James Falzone as young Joshua is a jarring flub, while other key players (such as Nicholas Kepros’ Uncle Leo and Patricia Mauceri’s school principal) have no discernible Italian accent. Chip Bolcik comes off best amongst dubbing thesps as Dora’s sleazy Fascist fiance, Rodolfo, while Horst Buchholz is the only original cast member doing duty here, as riddle-obsessed Dr. Lessing. Oddly, the one Yank character, originally played by Aaron Craig, is replaced here by Marc A. Schwarz.

Mix by Michael Barry and Tom Fleischman is fine, generally avoiding audible shifts from Italo version’s production sound to the new dubbed tracks. Original’s non-subtitled German dialogue is preserved, as are several Italianisms.

While Benigni’s showcase scene translating a Nazi camp officer’s German orders into playful talk for Joshua’s consumption still amuses, another key scene, in which Joshua mistakenly blurts out “Thank you” now loses its logic and, thus, its dramatic impact. Overall dubbing cannot shake off the reality that once you lose the Italian, you lose much of the humor, while lack of subtitles makes Benigni’s bland visual style more noticeable. Opening and closing credits are in English, with new dubbing production credits adding 30 seconds to running time of Miramax’s U.S. release version.

Life Is Beautiful (English dubbed version)


Reviewed at Miramax screening room, L.A., Aug. 23, 1999.

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