With regard to the whole issue of dubbing, conventional wisdom tells us that foreign films are best viewed in their original language. And I tend to agree with that.
But there are some major exceptions to that rule – most of them Italian. That’s because Italian films are (or were) generally shot without synchronized sound. If an Italian film had an international cast, each actor would speak his or her own native language during the shooting, and, more often than not, would only dub his or her own voice for the version that was released in that actor’s language. In short, virtually ALL Italian films are dubbed, and in deciding whether to view the English-dubbed version or the Italian version (also dubbed), your choice should be based on who is playing the lead, not the country of origin.
Regrettably, the folks who put out DVDs don’t always give us that choice. Here are a few examples.
La Strada (Federico Fellini 1954) – La Strada (“The Road”) is a story about traveling circus performers. The three main characters are a brutish strong man (Anthony Quinn), the simpleminded waif he adopts and exploits as his clownish assistant (Guilieta Masina), and a high-wire artist (Richard Basehart) whom the strong man sees as his rival. If you watch the Italian version, you get to hear Masina voicing her role in Italian. Unfortunately, you will also miss Quinn playing his role, possibly the most iconic performance of his career, in English. Since Masina’s role is mostly mime, and the English-language version allows us to hear Quinn’s and Basehart’s roles dubbed by Quinn and Basehart themselves, the English-language version is vastly preferable.
Criterion realized this when it released La Strada on laserdisc with the option of listening to either the Italian or the English audio track. (I understand the same is true of Criterion’s first DVD version). If you are listening to the English soundtrack and you come to a section of the longer Italian cut where there is no English audio, then you will briefly hear Italian for that section. I wish that all the films discussed in this post were released that way.
Unfortunately, according to Amazon and Criterion itself, Criterion’s “Essential Art House” DVD version of La Strada, scheduled to be released this February, has only the Italian audio track. Let the buyer beware.