Italians, accents, dialect test and Roman actors… OR “Quelli che a Como sono tutti de Trastevere…”

I don’t often agree with Northern League representatives. In fact, I deeply despise their racism, narrow mindness, and public display of “masculine and Nordic dominance”. I’m often scared of their abusive outbursts. Other times I find them totally hilarious, like when they recently proposed that teachers from the South working in the North should take a local dialect test to prove that they can really blend in and understand the people they’re teaching (how many kids speak dialect in Northern Italy, really? If you know one, please, take a picture of him/her, as they’re as rare as white bears as far as I can see).

The idea of the test immediately reminded me of comedians Aldo, Giovanni e Giacomo and the sketch where a Southern Italian Vampire sneaks into some farmers’ house looking for “victims” only to be confronted by two racist “Northerners” who not only aren’t scared of him, but immediately suspect him to be a “terrone” (derogatory for Southern Italian). In order to confirm their suspicions, they test him with “l’inganno della CADREGA”. CADREGA is a Northern word for “chair”. When the farmers ask the Vampire, “would you care for a CADREGA,” he panicks as he has no clue what they’re talking about. He tries to buy his time by using all the Milanese expressions he can think of. But the farmers aren’t impressed…

A few days ago, another member of the Northern League complained that all actors on Italian TV spoke with a Roman accent. No matter where a series is set, Roman is what we hear. He went on to mention a TV drama about the life of Pope Giovanni XXIII. The much loved pontiff was from the mountains near Bergamo, and spoke with the distinctive accents of that area. However, Massimo Ghini, the (usually very good) actor who portrayed him on TV spoke with a Roman accent. This, according to the Northern League’s guy, was unacceptable and another proof of disgusting Roman dominance. Of course, once again, his “externation” was followed by choruses of criticism. The mentioned Ghini said that he tried to portray the man, his essence, his humanity, not his “exterior”.

Ay me, ay me… what am I forced to say….

Ghini is blantantly wrong.

I totally support the Northern League guy. AHHHHHHH

Before you call an ambulance to check on my mental state, let’s make one thing absolutely clear:

I agree with the complaint raised by the politician for diametrically opposed reasons, ie not out of narrow-minded parochialism and irrational hatred for “Roma Ladrona”, but because Italian actors, if they really want to be as good as their foreign counterpart, have to grow beyond the limits of our little country and go further. Bey0nd provincialism, neoralism, beyond the boundaries of their native regions! They’re ACTORS for God’s sake. They have to stop playing themselves and learn what their profession is really about.

Acting is hard work.

Of course, yes, there are actors who become a sort of “universal archetype”, actors who can just be themselves and by so doing portray something that is so specific, so true, so human, it goes beyond geography and time. I think of Chaplin, Tati, of the Italian Toto’, comedians who became eternal masks, like Arlequin. But such actors don’t usually play “roles”, really. Stories are written around them. They’re a separate category.

Outside that narrow category are all the great, professional actors who play roles. They are blank canvasses ready to receive characters, turn into them, prepared to be moulded into a new creature who might vaguely look like them but who isn’t them. Of course they will always bring their own humanity into a role, their emotions, truths. I don’t believe much in pure “method”, in loosing yourself into somebody else’s story to the point of forgetting who you are. It’s dangerous, and it’s unnecessary. How can anyone, really, ever stop being themselves completely? We all bring our own humanity and being to the characters we play.

As one of my teachers said, acting is about being totally true under a set of made up circumstances. Being true, though, doesn’t imply speaking only in your every day accent. That would be simply lazy. It’s as if Meryl Streep had refused to do a Polish accent in Sophie’s choice and gone for her native New Jersey twang saying “the important thing is the humanity of the character not how she speaks.” Sophie was a Polish immigrant! Of course how she spoke was part of who she was, her identity, her humanity. In the USA or in the UK or even France, no actors will ever think that they can spend their all careers just using their native accent. A good ear for accents is considered a crucial skill anywhere outside Italy.

Because an accent isn’t just a way of pronouncing or pitching a word. It’s a whole way of being. I know it very well, as a foreigner living abroad. I’ve been trying to master my British accent for a number of years now, and recently my coach said something that was totally illuminating: “Lara, you’re Italian in the way you move, in the way you do your hair, in the way you look at people. You’re Italian before you even open your mouth. Think English, dress English, use your body as an English woman and you will also sound more English.”

It’s so true. The English sounds are produced by placing the whole of your body in a different position. Each idiom, each accent is only the final result of a whole culture.

Pope Giovanni XVIII was a simple man from a small mountain village. His delivery had the sweet, dark, slow cadence typical of that area. It had nothing to do with the more uptempo cadenza of the Roman accent. He came from a cold, hungry, underdevelopped region where winters were harsh and God could be seen in the beauty and the terror of the surrounding Alps. In his accent he carried this whole world.

If Ghini had been born in the US he would have spent two months in Bergamo in order to master his accent before beginning to shoot. But in Italy old Massimo feels perfetcly entitled to say “it’d be ridiculous for a Roman actor to do a Bergamo accent, it would have been fake and prevented me from portraying the character’s real soul.”

No, mate, it ‘s ridiculous that a Roman actor can only play Roman, that is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous that Italian viewers are so used to the equation Roman-accent-equals-TVlanguage that they didn’t even NOTICE! If you had used a Bergamo accent, it wouldn’t have been ridiculous. It would have been “acting”. Ever heard of it? Unless what you’re saying is that YOU would have been ridiculous, because you can’t do accents, in which case it’s your problem. If you can’t do an accent without sounding funny or loosing your ability to be believable you’re lacking a skill, pure and simple. 

I actually rate Ghini quite a good actor, and if even such a professionist can be so adamant about the unimportance of an accent, it means that Italian acting is totally out of sync with the acting we see in the rest of the world. This because our TV and Film industry are still set in the past. In a pre-multicultural, pre-multilingual, pre-internet, pre-alphabetized Italy, where people didn’t really know much about what was going on outside their own town, and couldn’t understand any idiom other than their native dialect and standard Italian. In such a world, the media had the important role of educating the masses, getting them to speak proper Italian – often with hint of a Roman accent because TV and Film companies were based in the capital and so were most of the actors.

This is why it’s normal in Italy to hear actors speak with Roman accents no matter where something is set. It’s normal for actors not work on their accents as if it wasnt’t part of their characters and it’s normal for viewers not to notice. 

The Italian soap “Vivere”, that concluded in 2008 after running for 10 years or so, was set in Como. People in Como have a STRONG accent. Not a particularly pleasant one, let’s face it, but very distinctive, almost Swiss. Do you think the production bothered keeping that detail in mind? Of course not. In fact, mainly because of political reasons, they ended up with a cast of mostly Roman actors. The few Milanese actors who did get a job in the soap and who could have at least brough some more authentic Northern flavour, spoke Standard Italian. They sounded like a dubbed version of themselves. DOPPIAGGESE is the term… If they had used a Northern accent I’m sure they would have sounded ridiculous to most viewers. Because Italians aren’t used to accents on TV. Especially, and the League guy is unfortunately right, to Northern accents. Proof is that when they cast the soap “Un posto al Sole”, set in Naples, they wanted Neapolitans. For “Montalbano”, set in Sicily, they use Sicilian actors (or people who can do the accent). So why is it that every inhabitant of Como in “Vivere” sounded as if they’d just arrived from Trastevere? Why can’t we have actors from Como, Milano, Genova, Bologna, Trento, Torino, speaking in their own accent rather than being forced into a standard diction that takes spontaneity and personality away? 

It’s time for a revolution here…

There are cases when standard diction is necessary. On stage, for instance. If you act Shakespeare in Italian, or Checov, or Ibsen, it makes sense to have a neutral diction. In period drama set at the court of some noble man, neutral diction is also welcome.

But in 2008 Como??? Where are the COMASCHI? e be’ be’, il comasco l’e’ un po’ bruutto neh?

Another example:

I was probably the only person in Italy that, at the end of the excellent movie “Giorni e nuvole”, wondered why was the film set in Genoa when Margherita Buy had a Roman accent, Alabanese a neutral accent and the girl playing their daughter a strange East Northern accent. Were the characters from somewhere else and had only recently moved to Genoa? They didn’t act as they were. Why didn’t the daughter speak like her parents and why in fact she didn’t speak Genoan, as any kid in that city would? Italians don’t think such details are important, the film is good, the actors were good, what’s the difference?

There’s a big difference. The difference is that I would have asked Margherita Buy to do a Genoan accent. Because she speaks the same in every single movie. She’s good but she will never be as good as a Kate Blanchet or a Meryl Streep because she’s a prisoner of herself, of her Roman accent and of her repetitive delivery. She can just play neurotic Roman. And she’s lucky enough to work in an industry where that is not only accepeted but demanded. So good for her. But don’t be surprised if our actors aren’t rated much abroad. They don’t push beyond their own limits. They comfortably sit on their own glories and go on playing “generic”. Because that’s what happens when you don’t care about they way a character speak. You turn them into “anybody”.

This trend in my opinion is the sum of two opposite fenomenons: dubbing and neorealism.

Neorealism brought Italian cinema to the big screens of the whole world back in the ’50s thanks to films portraying the situation of the country in the aftermath of the war. “Bicycle thieves” or “Rome open city” are incredible masterpieces where real people were taken literally from the streets to act their own life. This led to the idea that good acting equals being natural and being natural equals being yourself.  Slowly but surely neorealism died but the prejudice it created remained. Leading, for instance, to the silly idea that stage actors can’t do films because they’re too “trained”. Because stage actors speak standard Italian and sound fake, while film actor speak… er… Roman, mostly. Sometimes Neapolitan, because somebody at some point in history decided Neapolitan is a “language” so Neapolitan actors in Italy have a special status and they’re allowed to do their own thing. Or, some times, they speak other accents, but only if they’re “characters”  verging on caricatures (like Abbatantuono always playing the arrogant Milanese, Angela Finocchiaro playing the “sfigata” Milanese).

Perhaps if stage actors were allowed to act, and therefore cast as coming “from” a particular place (requiring a particular accent, rather than as some generic “person” who speaks as if they’d landed on Earth from an Episode of “Sentieri”) they would do a better job. If somebody for a change forced them, required them to act, to learn a skill, to use a REAL accent, they might actually prove that they have the capacity to do it.  

But let’s talk about dubbing, and I’m walking a very thin line here because I’m speaking against my own interest, since dubbing is what has been feeding me for a long time…

Italian dubbing is by far the best in the world. And I’m not saying it because I’m part of it, it’s a simple truth. We work at the highest standard. Italian “dubbers” are far more than voice over artists, they’re great actors who really re-create the acting of the big screen stars they voice on the dark. Sometimes, even to improve it, believe it or not. To the paradoxical point of turning, for instance, a poor actor such as Silvester Stallone into a very fine thespian thanks to the talent of an artist such as Ferruccio Amendola.

However, for all its highly accurate technique, finely tuned skills and amazing talents,Italian dubbing has one huge flaw: No dubbed film bothers with accents. No matter whether actors are British or American, speaking with a Tennessee or a York accent, no matter if they’re foreigners speaking English with a German or Spanish accent, no matter what, dubbing is done in STANDARD ITALIAN. Full stop. With very few exceptions such as the Godfather – dubbed with a Sicilian accent – or My Fair Lady, where Eliza was given a ludicrous Pugliese accent (which raise another issue: who do you translate accents? Impossible task?). 

Now, traditionally the great dubbing (the one for films) happens in Rome. Roman “dubbers”, despite protesting the contrary, very often slip into Roman habits (“sarebbe” with a closed “e”, “vabbene” with two “b” and various double consonants appearing in the wrong place…) Even those who aren’t from Rome try their best to colour their impeccable diction with some Roman hints, in the attempt to achieve the much requested “naturale, buttato via” tone…

Can you start seeing a pattern developping here..?

The result of 80 years of dubbing is first of all a general standardisation of acting. The moment you take accents away, all films pretty much sound the same.

Second, the Italian audiences have grown up, generation after generation, with the innate, never questioned convinction that great acting equals standard Italian (with a hint of Roman). Regional accents from anywhere else are just funny, you cant take them seriously, they make you laugh. Standard/Roman Italian is what all Hollywood actors speak in every film showed in Italy. Consequently, Italian actors think that Standard/Roman Italian is how you need to speak in films. Or TV. Simple.

The world has changed so quickly in the past 80 years that dubbing is, regrettably, a thing of the past, but Italians are conservative at heart and I suspect another 80 years might pass before people in my country will seriously consider subtitles.

Dubbing and the residues of neorealism have generated this shared belief in the acting/directing/producing community that characters on TV and in films exist as “entities” totally independent from their surroundings and the language spoken around them. As if there was a dicotomy between what a character is and how he/she sounds. As if the voice wasn’t part of the body, as if it didn’t have any history, any background. People, real people, are the way they sound. The soul doesnt only speak through the eyes, it also speak through the quality of the sounds we produce. Even now, in Italy, beautiful but inept girls are cast in main TV roles and then dubbed (with a neutral, slightly Roman accent). As if a voice could be forced upon a person, as if the voice was an exterior thing, an accessory – like a hat or a dress – as if the voice was always a voice “over”, as if we were all born mute and waiting to be dubbed.

PS:  To Romans. You live under the  – unfortunatly wide spread – delusion that Roman equals “general Italian”, as if it was a sort of Esperanto or a Swiss passport guranteeing neutrality.It is not. Roman is spoken in Rome. Roman is a REGIONAL, not national accent. And a very strong one. Get real.

Dear me, I do sound like Bossi now….

Oh mia bela Maduninaaaaaaaaa


10 thoughts on “Italians, accents, dialect test and Roman actors… OR “Quelli che a Como sono tutti de Trastevere…”

  1. Ciao a tutti!
    Very interesting article, thank you. I understand very little Italian and speak even less. Nonetheless I was trying to watch the movie ‘Amore tossico’ and consequently decided to look up ‘Roman accent’ which is how I came across your site. Yay for Google! I myself am German and over here we’re facing some similar yet not quite the same problems as Italians, in that the dubbing done for Hollywood productions is usually top notch, or at least used to be until recent years. The same problems here as well, though: Every American, French etc. actor no matter what their original accents for their part might have been is delivered in ‘Standard’, ie. ‘neutral’ German pronunciation, like a news cast. On the other hand, in Germany there really is no accent that takes such strong precedence over othters as the ‘Roman accent’ does. But then again, movies and shows that are set in various regions of Germany almost always feature actors that either know how to imitate the local accents or are actual speakers. I can only immagine how weird it must be for you to watch a movie where members of the same family speak in different accents as per your example above.

  2. Absolutely interesting, Lara. Thanks for sharing. I actually see very little – meno che sia possibile – Italian TV though I live here in Italy but I had never noticed the Roman dominance you so well described. Now you’ve made me think about it … YOU ARE DEFINITELY RIGHT!

  3. This is the reason why I don’t watch Italian TV or movies, even if they are good. It’s not funny to have creeps when you try to relax!!

  4. Grazie Lara, sei sempre molto ficcante! Hai ragionissima. Ma guarda che non c’è niente di male a essere d’accordo con l’Umberto, sono in molti ormai a pensarla come lui e non solo sul dialetto romanesco dominante (moschee, clandestini, sicurezza).
    Il partito in se’ ha pochi iscritti ma conta su una quantità di simpatizzanti che ne fanno il successo elettorale.
    Da’ voce alle sensazioni della gente. Sarà un male? mah …
    viva l’accento milanese al “berlusca” way!

  5. In case you didn’t know, the word “sarebbe” – pronounced with a close e – is perfectly fine. Indeed, that’s how it should be pronunced…
    it ain’t just a Roman habit but a feature of proper Italian.

    Northerners (and Southerners) don’t usually pay attention to it, so they always end up opening vowels that should be close or vice versa.

    By the way, “va bene” (pronounced “vabbene”) is correct, too.
    It’s a thing called “syntactic gemination”, which is part of the standard Italian pronunciation.

    • “Sarebbe” with a closed E isn’t taught as standard diction, sorry. I did three years of diction at the Academy of dramatic art and I’ve been dubbing tv series for 20 years so I know the subject! In a dubbing session if somebody says sarebbe with a closed e the director stops you and asks to do it again. No region in Italy has perfect diction, anyway, certainly not Rome, not even Florence. That’s because standard Italian diction is an invention, based on a refined version of florentine, but actually not reflecting any region. It was promoted to try and unify Italy but its actually only spoken by actors and voice over artists. And in any case you’re missing the point of my post. I’m not intetested in a petty North-South competition, I’m talking about good acting. What I object to is the fact that in Italy most tv and film products sound fake because the way actors speak doesn’t reflect the area in which the story takes place. In the Uk if a film is set in Liverpool everyone speaks with a Liverpool accent. In the US series “The Wire” everyone speaks with a Baltimore accent. In Italy if a tv series is set in Genova, 90% of the actors will still be speaking with a Roman accent. This is lazy.

  6. Quindi nonostante tu viva all’estero non hai ancora perso il tipico provinciale campanilismo degli italiani. Io vivo all’estero da anni e meta della mia famiglia non e’ italiana. Tutti realizzano che la provincialita’ e’ il piu grande problema degli italiani, quello che gli impedisce di cooperare come un’unica nazione nell’interesse comune.concetto sconosciuto in un paese come gli UK, per esempio, dove ho difficolta’ a spiegare che in Italia sei considerato quasi non connazionale se vivi in una regione diversa. Mi dispiace ma pur concordando con alcune delle tue argomentazioni,,il tuo articolo non e’ obiettivo e tradisce una tua personale e provinciale rivalita’ con un’altra citta’ del tuo paese. Tipico italiano. Se solo ci si potesse liberare del provincialismo, della mediocrita’, della furbizia mascherata da virtu’ l’italia non avrebbe problemi economici e sarebbe un posto migliore in cui vivere…fino ad allora guardero’ con tristezza da lontano, l’ottuso italiano medio portare il mio paese al declino, come un inesorabile cancro sociale.

    • Esattamente l’oppisto caro Louis, io sono un compendio di provenienze diverse per cui non sto proprio dalla parte di nessuno! Il campanilismo l’ho sempre trovato ridicolo e facendo la doppiatrice do benissimo quale sia la dizione e nessuna regione ce l’ha perfetta, ed e’ bello
      cosi’. Proprio per questo, perché non sono campanilista, e perché penso che ogni regione sia bella cosi’ com’e’, accento compreso, credo che quando si rappresenti un posto occorra mostrarlo per quello che è. Se in un film ambientato a Torino parlano tutti romano non ha senso. Se in un film ambientato a Palermo parlano tutti milanese perche’ la produzione e’ di Milano, anche quello non ha senso. È il retaggio di un modo vecchio di concepire cinema e tv in cui bisogna “abbellire” o “standardizzare” sempre tutto, dalle donne sempre perfettamente truccate alle pronunce perfettamente in dizione o in accento romano che viene fatto passare per tale. Non ce l’ho ne’ col romano, ne’ con qualsiasi altra cadenza perche non mi potrebbe interessare di meno fare delle gare regionali a chi parla meglio, e’ cosi’ ridicolo che non so nemmeno come qualcuno possa concepirlo. Io ce l’ho con una rappresentazione sfalsata dell’Italia da parte di produzioni che appiattiscono la bellezza delle realtà locali. L’accento di un posto ne racchiude anche un pezzo d’anima. Se in una storia napoletana tutti parlassero toscano verrebbe a sparire Napoli. Così come se in una storia Bergamasca tutti parlano romano, Bergamo viene sfalsata. In Italia siamo così abituati a non sentire accenti regionali che non ce ne accorgiamo. È proprio stando all’estero che mi sono accorta di quanto sia assurda la mancanza di attenzione verso le realta’ linguistiche regionali, perche’ In UK nessuno si sognerebbe mai di ambientare una serie a Manchester e far parlare tutti in dizione, o con l’accento di Londra. Se giri un film a Liverpool e tutti gli accenti non sono fedelmente locali, le critiche ti massacrano!! Perché un posto e’ la sua gente. E la gente non parla tutta uguale. Il campanilismo si può solo superare non facendo finta di parlare tutti come Ferruccio Amendola ma mostrando la peculiarità e la bellezza delle realtà locali. Che hanno tutte lo stesso valore e nessuna e’ superiore. Questo consentirebbe tra l’altro di aprire possibilità ad attori bravissimi che hanno sede in varie città d’Italia. Creerebbe prodotti meno stereotipati e plastificati e più reali. Come accade in tutti gli altri paesi. Solo che il doppiaggio ovviamente, e parlo contro il mio intetesse, appiattisce tutto, ciò per cui il pubblico medio italiano non si rende conto delle immense diversità linguistiche che ci sono in un film ambientato a New York, Dublino o Houston… Tali diversità tendono l’originale più vivace, specifico, umano.
      Nessuno parla in dizione perfetta nella vita. L’Italia è bella perché varia. È l’opposto del campanilismo, che implica un giudizio di merito. Non c’è merito nell’avere un certo accento. È bello così. Non capisco perché ostinarsi a ritrarre un’Italia in cui tutti parlano allo stesso modo.

  7. P.s. come qualcuno ha suggerito sopra, non c’e’ bisogno di prendere lezioni di dizione per realizzare che chi vive al nord sbaglia molte vocali…basta consultare un dizionario..questo non ti rende non meritevole di essere italiana o di avere un lavoro in tv…questa e’ l’talia, le persone hanno dialetti regionali…e’ lo stesso negli UK ma nessuno si sognerebbe di sentire rivalita’ con un connazionale britannico solo perche’ ha un diverso dialetto regionale.

    Povera italia

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