Why are American moviegoers so hung up on subtitles?

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Much of the 2012 Dutch epic “Bride Flight” (above) has the old-fashioned feel of something that might have been produced by MGM 50 years ago.

The movie - available on DVD – tells the story of three women who were part of a group of Dutch people who emigrated to New Zealand in the early 1950s.

Young people in their 20s had just seen their families shattered and their cities destroyed in World War II and many of them were ready for a fresh start on the other side of the globe.

The women (and some men) received free passage as part of a commercial air race from London to New Zealand designed to set new records for the pre-jet era (and, no doubt, promote tourism to NZ and its neighbor Australia).

The air race was real but writer Marieke van der Pol and director Ben Sombogaart have crafted a fictional story centered on three very different women who took the trip looking for romance and marriage, but ran into all sorts of obstacles. “Bride Flight” spans five decades and it has the satisfying feel of an oversized romantic historical novel (something in the “Thorn Birds” ballpark).

The only thing that hung up the movie’s success in the United States is the fact that much of the dialogue is in Dutch with English subtitles.

The resistance to subtitling seems to have grown rather than diminished in recent years, with only a handful of very commercial-sounding  foreign language films receiving a mainstream release in this country. “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (bottom) crossed over — despite the Spanish soundtrack — because it was

so sexy, and the Swedish language “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” also played many multiplexes, but only because it was based on an international bestseller.

Whenever I recommend a foreign film to friends, more than a few of them always respond with the same question, “Is it subtitled?”

I don’t get why lots of people think reading subtitles is such a chore. But then again I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s when wide-release foreign hits like “A Man and a Woman” (above) and “Amarcord” played neighborhood theaters in Philadelphia with subtitles and without complaint. Indeed, the resistance then was to the occasional crudely dubbed foreign film that would pop up in a second-run theater.

One of my favorite subtitling stories involves an old friend who went with me to a showing of Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage” in Washington, D.C. in the mid-1970s. After the movie, she turned to me and said, “Wasn’t it strange the way they started talking in English about halfway through the movie?”

When I told her the whole film was in Swedish with English subtitles, she didn’t believe me.

My friend got so caught up in Bergman’s marital drama and the intense performances that she thought at some point Liv Ullmann started to speak in English! (And, no, the woman had not just dropped acid).

Clearly, the titles and the film had meshed for my friend and the “chore” of reading vanished.

I hope the older, slightly conservative audience that would enjoy the swoony and sexy romance of “Bride Flight” will find the movie on DVD and overcome its aversion to foreign language films. It’s the sort of picture they grew up on and that almost never comes out of Hollywood now.

Joe Meyers

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