film reporter

Subtitles no longer a foreign concept

Read a good movie lately? If you've been frequenting the local megaplex you probably have, since one of 2006's little-noticed trends has been the return of the subtitle.

Historically, Hollywood has shunned subtitles. It assumed most moviegoers wouldn't sit still for dialogue that had to be translated onscreen; subtitles were left to foreign films with limited appeal to smaller, more upscale audiences. But then films like 2000's sumptuous martial arts movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" — which grossed a whopping $128.1 million domestically — proved that you could have your subtitles and a broad-based audience, too.

This year has seen a proliferation of subtitled fare. There are such traditional foreign-language features as Pedro Almodovar's "Volver" and Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth," both in Spanish. In the French-produced "The Science of Sleep," Gael Garcia Bernal, a rising international star, speaks French, Spanish and English. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel," produced by Paramount Vantage, features a polyglot cast speaking English, French, Spanish, Japanese, Berber, Arabic and, in the case of the deaf girl played by Rinko Kikuchi, Japanese sign language. One of the movie's themes is the cost of miscommunication in an increasingly global world, and it's through subtitles that audiences keep one step ahead of the often bewildered characters.

Subtitles are showing up in less traditional fare as well. The ambush comedy "Borat" opens with a title treatment, presumably in the Kazakhstan state language of Kazakh, that is explained by English subtitles. Waiting in line in a coffee shop, Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat argues with his portly producer, Azamat (Ken Davitian), in some approximation of a foreign language, subtitled for the audience's amusement.

Having dared to film "The Passion of the Christ" in ancient Aramaic, Mel Gibson uses a Mayan dialect in "Apocalypto," which still opened in first place at the boxoffice. The current action-cum-message movie "Blood Diamond" isn't afraid to mix in indigenous languages as it re-creates civil war in Sierra Leone. And in "Letters From Iwo Jima," Clint Eastwood films an entire war movie in Japanese.

Technological advances have made subtitles more palatable. As more theaters offer stadium seating, the old problem of the moviegoer in front of you blocking your view of the subtitles is eliminated. Filmmakers also are adopting an array of typefaces and colors that make subtitles easier to read; gone are the old days when shaky white lettering disappeared altogether whenever white dominated a scene.

Ultimately, movies probably have to thank TV for domesticating the subtitle. "Lost" and "Heroes," two of the hottest series of the past few years, boast proudly multicultural casts, and both shows have featured extensive scenes in which their non-English-speaking characters converse in their native tongue. Similarly, the postapocalyptic drama "Jericho" features a deaf character, played by Shoshannah Stern, and when she argues with her brother Stan (Brad Beyer) in forceful American Sign Language, their dialogue is subtitled.

"Heroes" even has served up a twist on the traditional, bottom-of-the-screen placement of subtitles. When Japanese office workers Hiro and Ando are onscreen together, the show moves around the subtitles so they appear either below or beside the character who has just spoken. Suddenly, subtitles don't look so foreign — they're more like the dialogue bubbles in comic books. No wonder audiences don't seem to fear them anymore.
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