I don’t have any statistics to support this assertion, but it seems to me that Americans don’t fear and loathe subtitles nearly as much as they did eight or 10 years ago. That’s not to say that Joe Sixpack The Plumber is rushing out to see the latest Hong Sang-soo picture—foreign films remain marginalized in the U.S. and probably always will, global economy notwithstanding. But it’s no longer necessary, thank God, for writers to twist themselves into knots trying to steer any given conversation into English. Lost’s Jin and Sun spoke mostly in subtitled Korean throughout the first season, and the public didn’t rebel. Top-tier directors like Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood can make hit movies with sporadic English (Munich) or no English at all (Letters From Iwo Jima). Inglourious Basterds poked sly fun at the old-style convention of a sudden, vaguely justified switch, but Colonel Landa’s decision to speak in English turned out to have a horrific secret purpose, and subsequent scenes were performed entirely in French, German, and pseudo-Italian. It just isn’t the issue it used to be, for which we can all be hugely grateful.
Still, it’s hard to imagine the average American sitting still for a scene performed almost entirely in a foreign language, without subtitles. Not an action scene, understand, but a dialogue scene—couple of guys just sitting at a table, speaking passionately, saying who the hell knows what as far as most of the audience is concerned. If you’d told me a week ago that such a scene existed in a beloved American classic, I would have shot you a look of deep skepticism. But that’s how long it had been (almost 14 years—I keep a nerd log) since I’d seen The Godfather. In fact, let me confess in shame that halfway through this scene, I assumed the DVD was acting up and went flipping through the subtitle menu trying to find the translation. Once I realized there wasn’t one, I re-watched the whole thing in awe, wondering how Coppola—whose job, by all reports, was in jeopardy throughout the shoot—persuaded Paramount to sign off on it. Take a look for yourself, bearing in mind that the last few seconds are potentially NSFW.
Normally, I set up the clip in the previous paragraph, before inviting you to watch. In this case, that seemed unnecessary—partly because most people have seen The Godfather, but mostly because the scene itself openly scoffs at the importance of context. We know Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) and Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) have set up this meeting with Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in an attempt to establish détente; we know that Michael has a pistol stashed in the bathroom, and intends to murder them both. The particulars of the conversation don’t matter, and Coppola doesn’t want us paying any attention to them. Seconds spent scanning the bottom of the frame to see what Sollozzo is saying are inevitably seconds not spent observing Michael’s carefully composed expression and questioning whether he has the stomach for what he’s volunteered to do. (In one of the great narrative feints of all time, it’s established that Michael is supposed to emerge from the bathroom shooting, thereby doubling the suspense when he retrieves the gun and then simply sits back down at the table.)
For the record, here’s what various translations I found online have them saying, roughly:
Sollozzo: [Referring to Michael’s injury.] I’m sorry.
Michael: Forget it.
Sollozzo: What happened to your father was business. I have a great deal of respect for your father, but his thinking is old-fashioned. You must understand why I had to do that.
Michael: I understand these things.
Sollozzo: Now, let’s figure out where we go from here.
Michael: [Mumbles, then…] How do you say…?
At which point Michael, whose Sicilian is clearly shaky, switches to English. But this happens long after established let-the-audience-off-the-hook convention would dictate. Plus, it’s clear right from the beginning of the scene that Coppola means to employ frustration as a kind of suspense. Fully 30 seconds of this five-minute scene—10 percent of its duration!—is devoted to the waiter opening the wine bottle and pouring two glasses (I guess McCluskey’s on duty?) in real time, as Michael and Sollozzo stare each other down in grim silence. The absence of anything to process, apart from these two men’s faces, cues us to roll with it when they begin speaking in Sicilian—we’ve already grasped that the scene’s ostensible “content” is irrelevant. My guess is that Michael and Sollozzo switch back to English only so we understand the insincere words—“All I want is a truce”—that inspire Michael to head to the bathroom. (Pacino’s look of poorly concealed disgust is priceless.)
By the same token, except in reverse, Sollozzo’s monologue just before he’s killed is in Sicilian, lest we mistakenly assume that Michael opens fire in response to something Sollozzo said. And here, Coppola uses a more time-honored method of de-emphasizing dialogue: He cranks up the noise from a passing subway car until it transcends any pretense of verisimilitude, acting as a metaphor for the shrieking inside Michael’s head as he wills himself into action. Holding on a tight close-up of Michael’s increasingly agitated face and turning the subway din up to 11 would probably have sufficed, but the fact that we don’t know what Sollozzo is saying ensures our understanding that it doesn’t matter—that Michael has already made the decision to pull the trigger and is struggling to summon the necessary courage. Thus are we spared endless mind-numbing debate about what insolent turn of phrase finally makes Michael snap.
(Again, for the curious, what Sollozzo reportedly says is: “Everything all right? I respect myself, understand? And I cannot allow another man to hold me back. What happened was unavoidable. I had the unspoken consent of the other families. If your father were in better health, without his eldest son running things—no disrespect—we wouldn’t have this nonsense. We’ll stop fighting until your father is well and can resume bargaining. No vengeance will be taken. We will have peace, but your family should interfere no longer…” BLAM.)
From today’s perspective, of course, what’s truly remarkable about this scene (and the film as a whole, and numerous other films from the ’70s) is how still, quiet, and subdued Pacino is. It’s as if he’s developed a tolerance to himself over the years, so that he now has to yell at the top of his lungs to achieve the same level of intensity that a steady gaze could once afford. (Though that can be immensely enjoyable in its own right.) So I was startled, as I reveled in the soft-spoken, heavy-lidded glory that was Young Pacino, by the abrupt, unexpected appearance, years ahead of its time, of Old Pacino. You can actually see him momentarily transform into the actor he is today—an actor whose eyebrows are perpetually raised in astonishment at the world’s bullshit. It’s just as he sits down after returning from the bathroom. Lasts only a few seconds, but it’s unmistakable. Take another look, and tell me I’m wrong.