In the Thirties, Italy was an almost completely illiterate country – a problem more or less for everyone. Especially so for production studios in Hollywood, which were spreading their films around the world with textual support (a sort of subtitles prototype), that no one would go and see in Italy because they couldn’t read. In order to avoid losing a good share of the market, in 1931 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer decided to hire the Italian-American actor Augusto Galli (who had taken part into one of the first dubbing experiment in history a couple of years before) that, together with his wife Rosina and other actors, was a pioneer in the great Italian dubbing tradition. What we get from this story is that Italians were never really into watching films in their original language, that’s why even today most cinemas screen dubbed movies. This was almost ok for many years, but since movies started to circulate in their original language on the Internet or pay-Tv channels, and especially since the illiteracy rate has drastically reduced, many people wonder why Italy keeps dubbing films, and start looking for cinemas screening films in their original language.

In the past few years the only cinema in Milan that completely refuses the concept of dubbing, has become renowned as one of the few places in Italy to watch those movies that you’d never be able to find in a multiplex. Since Barz and Hippo’s Paola and Monica started managing this theatre, Beltrade has become a landmark not only for the inhabitants of the neighborhood (what people in Milan now refer to as NoLo), but also to many people, especially young, who are interested in a certain kind of cinema.

Photo by Alice Gemignani

“Before working here, we were managing two public theaters, one in Rho and the other in Cologno”, says Monica. “Paola had been in charge of cinemas and summer arenas scheduling for many years. We both knew Beltrade and especially one of the volunteers, Andrea Confalonieri. At some point, thanks to him, we started a collaboration to manage the theatre. At that time cinemas were in a difficult position because of the passage to digital: with the scheduling of the time, counting three or four screenings a week, they couldn’t afford a digital projector. So we helped them win a competition announcement by Fondazione Cariplo and from that moment we took on the entire management of the theatre, with the help of some volunteers from the parish.”

“We realized that it made no sense to continue running it as they did before, because it’s a small suburban cinema, not very important, which is not granted the first run by the big production houses. We couldn’t bet on blockbusters, we would have shot ourselves in the foot. So we decided to screen different movies, indie, small-scale distribution. This way we would have spent less and people wouldn’t have found us at the bottom of their list. Viewers showed interest so we continued in that direction. Cineclub Distribuzione Internazionale is one of the first distributors we worked with. Their Parade was the first film with a great success at Beltrade, and that’s when we realized that Milan had a public which was interested in different kind of stuff, movies you can’t find somewhere else because are not commercially interesting. So we screen them in their original language with subtitles.

Right from the start we were confident that movies in their original language could have worked, because once people try the original language at festivals or on the Internet they notice the difference and don’t want dubbed movies. We think the film in its original version is the real film, a dubbed film is something else, even when the dubbing is really good – and it is often very bad. We also have a big foreign public that comes either because the film is in their native language or because the subtitles make it easier for them to understand it. Most of all, we have a young audience – young people are used to watch movies in the original language. We have a much younger audience compared to other cinemas.”

Photo by Alice Gemignani

Soon after taking this new path, Monica says, “we had to take off the programme a movie we had been running for a while, La leggenda di Kaspar Hauser, because we were offered another really good movie, Arrugas. We were sorry to take it down, so we decided to run them both everyday. Had they been big distribution movies, we couldn’t have done that: you can only run their movie. With indie movies, on the other hand, we were able to gradually increase the number of daily screening, until arriving to the actual six or seven per day. We realized that multi-programmation was working: it was a way to give continuity to a movie for quite a long period. A small movie that can’t support itself could be running only for three or four days, which isn’t enough to get the word of mouth going. We have devised a method that mixes movies with a strong call or a natural audience, with others that need a little more time to get going. This way each movie can have a better journey. It’s a method that wouldn’t have been welcomed by a big distributor, while it works really well for some kind of movies in the long run.”

Thanks to this new path, Beltrade has become a landmark for many people in town, and the crucial center of NoLo. “At first”, Monica tells me, “it seemed they wanted to brag saying ‘we are the new SoHo’, but having a name is a sign of growth, desire of sharing and self-awareness; it means they have acquired an identity created by people who live in the neighborhood, not by someone else. This helps creating synergy between the inhabitants of the area, the possibility of new collaborations and the creation of new realities”.

To feed – literally – the neighborhood life, the Beltrade girls decided to bring an ethically purchasing group to the square in front of the cinema. “Obviously we didn’t do it just because it’s easier for us to go shopping there. As the cinema has become a simple, familiar, friendly landmark for cultural sharing, we thought that it would have been great to feed people coming to Beltrade by creating another moment of sharing. It’s an approach to food production and distribution that follows the same line we adopted with film producers and distribution”.

*  5 places suggested by Beltrade:

3001 LAB: a gallery managed by the friends we distributed Alamar with. Just like us, they are fond of arts and cinema. They also have Rossosegnale B&B.

Spazio B**K: probably the most interesting bookshop in town

SAN BERNARDINO ALLE OSSA: An impressive, fascinating, church

AL TEMPIO D’ORO: a must for those who come to NoLo for an aperitivo or dinner.

BICI&RADICI: an interesting hybrid between a bike repair and a florist.

Featured in