Theodore Collatos (Dipso) Talks Watching Foreign Movies Without English Subtitles

From watching a film about favelas in Rio to Ferrara's vision of Pasolini in Rome, how do we experience movies when dialogue doesn't get in the way?

While on a trip to Rome this past September, my wife Carolina and I set off among the ruins to watch Pasolini by Abel Ferrara. Neither of us speaks Italian, but I have this fetish for watching foreign films in foreign lands, without English subtitles. Apparently Ferrara lives in Rome now; I had no idea, having lost track of him some time ago. I’ve always had a fascination with Pasolini’s murder and with his uniquely neorealist, metaphysical tales, and I also love a handful of Ferrara’s movies, so this seemed the perfect setting in which to watch this film.


It all started with massive ear infections, three surgeries and a childhood of ear pain. Visual imagery taking the foreground. The spoken word taking a back seat. My fetish for watching films and not understanding dialogue makes perfect sense now….

The first time was in Paris. I had a new job with an abusive, megalomaniacal millionaire who had flown me there, first class, to write a script for him starring, in his mind, Johnny Depp. Let’s just say, he insisted on having a character named “Sambo,” despite my strong objections. I was on lockdown at the Four Seasons when I broke away one night and watched Lars von Trier’s The Idiots in Danish with French subtitles. I remember having the distinct and pointed feeling of knowing nothing about what was going on. Capital N, Nothing. I mean, I got the part about the explicit pornographic sex, but that’s about it. And I liked it, the sex part aside. The images washed over my eyes, the sounds were more specific, and the experience… well, it was more an experience. Giving myself the freedom of “getting it” and just letting it happen. The childlike naïveté of wondering what was around the bend. Image and sound equaling language. Like Eisenstein’s dialectic theory of editing where two images joined by a cut equals a third unseen image that exists in the mind.

And it was cool! No social cues. No opportunity to judge. And yes, no comprehension. To this day, I have no idea what The Idiots is about. I mean, I’ve read it’s about the social elite, entitlement, etc., but I saw an actors’ exercise. And that’s the other thing about my fetish: You see things. You feel things. You hear things. You see the actor’s commitment, or lack thereof. You ride the dolly as it moves towards them. You hear more sound and less of the intent of the words people say. The lack of understanding lays bare technique and uplifts the art. I like to be able to watch a movie and not be entertained by it. Not all the time, but sometimes. A space to think…. Sometimes, I like just to think. Not all the time, but sometimes. Most of the time I don’t like to think because then I think about how fucked-up everything is, but sometimes I allow myself.

It happened again in Brazil, and not just anywhere in Brazil, but in Rio de Janeiro. Sun-soaked and Caipirinha-driven, Carolina and I sat in an enormous theater packed with young Cariocas. The air was thick with buzz and heavy with anticipation, almost fear. We were about to watch City of God. She nudged me amidst the confusion (there’s always some wonderfully beautiful confusion in Rio), and said, “I’ll whisper to you what they’re saying.” I looked her right in the eye and said, “I don’t want you to.” You see, she didn’t know that side of me yet. She was discovering something new.

This film, this time, was important to these people. I’d never felt that before in a theater, ever, the kind of thing that gives you goosebumps. What this film was about to say needed to be said right now for Brazilians and the world to understand. The Scorsese-esque approach, the stylized gangsters, and the nod to Goodfellas’ structure entertained me as much as the message. This film about film seemed nervously afraid of the vulnerability it exposed about the culture. It needed a vehicle to propel it, and cinema history to buffer its bluntness about the murders happening only a block away from the theater. Travelers like to romanticize the favelas, but I tell you there is nothing romantic and everything terrifying about the pain, poverty and gangster lifestyle of these places. At any moment, the impoverished could literally take over the city of Rio and all those educated, middle-class kids who were sitting in the theater. At any time, if they wanted. No joke.

People weren’t jazzed by the violence, like Americans watching Django Unchained, safely feeling they deserved that. It was a palatable fear. Once the lights went up, people dispersed and silence gave way to the laughter, love and comradeship which makes Brazilians the most beautiful people in the world. Positivity surrounded by poverty. Enlightenment around death. Laughter in silence. Applause at each sunset.

Watching films this way brings me back to a time when I didn’t know things. No analyzing every cut, color and style choice, no asking whom the director is ripping off at any given moment. Yes, these things occur while watching but they don’t happen. I’m reminded of when I didn’t know how it worked or why it was made or with whose money. Before artifice. I also like not watching the same movie everyone else is watching. In America, we have to experience the same movie. We’re shamed into liking something. Give me some privacy, please, so I can understand nothing. Allow me to get what I get. You get what you get. It’s taken me years of maturity not to pretend to like a movie. Not understanding words helps me return to that sense of privacy I felt before peeking behind the curtain.

Back in Rome, heading to the theater to see Pasolini, the health of our bodies was in full retreat, overwhelmed by Italian charcuterie. Carolina and I grabbed a Prosecco and chips and sat in the theater. I don’t know why we got chips. We were desperately hungry. The opening scenes were amazing! A flashback vividly depicted young Pasolini giving head to four poverty-stricken teenage hustlers. I was psyched! I like a movie that kicks you in the teeth. A reflection of neorealism, in Rome — wow! Was Ferrara back, I wondered? Was he about to kick my ass with truth, Bad Lieutenant-style? That film has made me hang on to Ferrara like a heroin addict all these years, despite his failures. Was Pasolini going to have the emotional power that made Madonna watchable in Dangerous Games, another Ferrara masterpiece, or the nuances amongst men seen in The Funeral, a film Ferrara directed asleep at the wheel? I was even buying into Dafoe as Pasolini at one point, mostly because Rome’s version of Pasolini was dubbed in Italian!

Ultimately, these blissfully subtitle-free moments become less about the quality of the film and more about the quality of the experience of the film. Isn’t that what film used to be, and is to most people, an experience? Cracks in Pasolini, the film, became chasms and chasms became canyons, in a mish-mash of cultural significance which ultimately didn’t work for me. I wanted grit and I got a soft serving of surrealistic imaginings of Pasolini’s last script. You can really isolate camera movements, lighting, cuts and the presence or absence of the actor when you don’t understand. Without the cover of dialogue, everything is laid bare. You can see and hear more this way. Soon I was thinking about my life, my trip, where I’ve been, where I’m going — all those places your mind can’t go when the words are there to distract you.

Theodore Collatos is a Brooklyn-based, award-winning photographer and filmmaker, who works in both fiction and documentary. His most recent features include the documentary Queen of Lapa and the narrative drama Tormenting the Hen, and his pilot Palookaville won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival. For more info on his work, visit the Broken Horse Films website.