How Do Actors’ Performances Fare When Spanish Dialogue Is Directed by an English Speaker?

'Icebox' image courtesy of TIFF

Like lighting and composition, language can have a profound effect on a movie. The rhythm of dialogue can make or break the tension of a scene if the actors sound too stilted or robotic. If non-English speakers trade English-language lines with difficulty, notice how awkward the timing feels – the lack of naturalism in the moment. Depending on the scene’s context, that may work or feel forced. Ever hear an actor speak their dialogue phonetically, as Will Ferrell does in Spanish for Casa de mi Padre? That awkward affectation may have worked for laughs, but if he needed to say things for dramatic emphasis, the results may have fallen flat.

Working outside of one’s native language can present a challenge for directors. Giving direction to actors may not be so easy if a translator has to be involved in every discussion about a character or tailoring their movement for a scene. The same challenge arises when the director is working with a crew who doesn’t speak the language. It’s not impossible – plenty of movies throughout the years have conquered such language barriers –  but the lack of familiarity with a language may show up in the final film in awkward pauses, wrong phrases in the dialogue or uses language as a coded way to exoticize a character or story.

The role of language was notable among a number of movies at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Take for instance Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself, which enjoyed its premiere at TIFF before hitting theaters last week. The first sequence of the movie is entirely in English, featuring native English speakers and is set in New York City. For the film’s second portion, the narrative uproots itself entirely to Spain where a different family drama plays out between actors Antonio BanderasSergio Peris-Mencheta, and Laia Costa. Unlike in the first sequence, where actors talked with a natural rhythm, the Spanish-language portion of the movie begins with a long, extemporaneous monologue by Banderas about his character’s convoluted family past, his resentment towards his Italian heritage and how he came to cherish his olive orchards. It’s a befuddling scene that like most of the movie, is visually nondescript.

‘Life Itself’ image courtesy of TIFF
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To my knowledge, Fogelman is not a native Spanish speaker, and I could come up with no discernable reason the movie’s second story needed to have been set in Spain. It’s hardly necessary to their story, which could have as easily been set in Queens between a laborer, his family and a store or building owner. Spain feels like it was chosen as a safer alternative to Latin America, a place that didn’t have the political baggage of immigration issues. Instead, it becomes an escapist narrative like a chaser to soothe the shot of the first story’s dreary Manhattan tale.  It’s strange to have cast one of the greatest actors from Spain delivering said passage as if in a play. As the script is being recited to Peris-Mencheta’s soft-spoken laborer, it’s obvious the moment lacks any kind of warmness from the first scenes of the movie. Peris-Mencheta and Costa have it slightly easier as a couple who grows together but faces trouble as life goes on. Their rapport is perhaps one of the best in a film starring Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, and Mandy Patinkin.

In the case of Todos lo saben (Everybody Knows), the drama is led by a director who does not speak the same language as his cast. Oscar-winning Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi worked with a Spanish cast in a story set in Spain to bring to life a gripping family mystery that digs up old heartbreaks and feuds in the time of crisis. In a way, Farhadi is following in the footsteps of another great Iranian director, Abbas Kiarostami, who also transported his potent human dramas to other parts of the world, regardless of language, in movies like Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love.  In these cases, it’s up to the actors to smooth over any language barriers and misunderstandings. Of course, for Todos lo saben, real-life couple Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem are such professionals that if there were any misunderstandings behind the scenes, there were no indications of that on-screen.

‘Everybody Knows’ image courtesy of TIFF
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Language is also a way to convey authenticity, as Daniel Sawka’s Icebox accomplished with the help of a dialect coach. In this dramatic story about the humanitarian crisis at the border, Coco star Anthony Gonzalez plays a 12-year-old Honduran boy who flees for the U.S. to escape gang violence. He is captured by U.S. immigration officials and detained in the cold holding cell (colloquially known as la hielera in Spanish) that gives the movie its name. In order to properly portray a Honduran character, Gonzalez, who was born in the U.S. to Guatemalan parents, needed to learn the subtleties of the dialect. He worked with a coach to pick up the slang terms and the different words Hondurans use in everyday conversation, like saying “cheque” for “okay.” Going that extra mile means pulling off a more authentic performance, one that hopefully also resonates with an audience who shares that dialect or accent as well. Luckily for Sawka, he was working with a cast and crew in the U.S. and likely most of them, if not all, spoke English. He placed the responsibility of selling the performances into the hands of his cast and the expertise of a dialect coach. The Spanish used by U.S. immigration officials is appropriately stiff and mispronounced as if they could not properly empathize or understand their charges.

In the case of a movie like John Butler’s Papi Chulo, understanding both languages may affect how you enjoy the film. Here, Matt Bomer plays an overworked, grieving Los Angeles weatherman named Sean who hires one of the day laborers looking for work outside a local hardware store not just to repaint his deck but also to befriend. It’s an awkward comedy of miscommunication, as neither Sean or Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño) quite understand what the other is saying. Butler, the film’s director, hails from Ireland and has not said he speaks Spanish. However, since the exchanges between the two men are supposed to look and sound awkward, he doesn’t need the dialogue to flow fluently, only that the two actors play up their differences for a comedic Odd Couple effect.

‘Papi Chulo’ image courtesy of TIFF
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Because Sean is so overearnest in his attempts to communicate with Ernesto, his behavior becomes more of the punchline instead of Ernesto’s inability to speak English, which is how many movies may have approached the premise. Ernesto calls his wife, commenting to her about the white gay man’s insistence on oversharing things he doesn’t understand or when he’s invited to go out to a fancy party or hiking under the desert sun. But Ernesto knows more than he lets on about what Sean is going through, and in that moment, language becomes inconsequential.

There’s so much to consider when listening to language in movies: whether the accent is right, the slang makes sense or if the subtitles translate connotation in addition to meaning. It’s an integral part of an actor’s performance to make an accent sound natural or the dialogue smooth – unless conveying characters’ miscommunication is the goal. Directors who understand how a language is supposed to sound are likely in a better position to direct it, but in the cases above, it’s the actors who step up and convince the audience of the story’s setting and their characters’ emotions. So much of a character’s story is carried in their words, perhaps we should listen a little more closely to the actors’ performances.