Like many contemporary American films, Eat Pray Love is a casually multilingual affair. After Liz (Julia Roberts) leaves New York for Rome, she makes a point of learning Italian, and director Ryan Murphy depicts her at various stages of comprehension, from a stammering negotiation with her landlady to a breathlessly fluent, restaurant-ordering triumph—accompanied by subtitles as needed. Dwelling on Liz’s Italian serves to illustrate her newfound curiosity. It is both realistic and dramatically functional. But when she gets to India and Bali, and becomes preoccupied with spiritual growth, Murphy stops focusing on Liz’s language skills. Locals conveniently speak to her in English, and there’s nary a subtitle east of Rome.
Since the beginning of Hollywood, filmmakers after an exotic or romantic effect have taken their stories abroad. Since the advent of sound in the late 1920s, this tendency has created a little-discussed problem: How to represent foreign speech? Many filmmakers are content to shoot against a painted backdrop, toss in a few bonjours, and call it France, while others go to great lengths to have characters look and speak as authentically as possible. There are no hard and fast rules, but it’s a tricky business—directors must balance the expectations of realism with ease of viewing. They want dialogue to be convincing, but they don’t want to alienate their audiences with accents or subtitles that aren’t essential to the story.
We tend to take language for granted; how foreign speech is handled in film shapes our experience as viewers, usually without our knowing it. The accompanying slide show explores the various ways that filmmakers negotiate foreign speech, highlighting those films that approach the problem as an opportunity to deepen the story.
Click here for a video slide show on foreign speech in Hollywood movies.