The advent of sound undoubtedly marks the most delicate break in the history of cinema – equal only to the transition from the analogue to the digital format. Since its origins, theorists and directors have expressed fears and perplexities towards speech that risked absorbing the plastic movement of the image with its presence, experienced up to that moment by the avant-garde schools (first of all the Soviet one of Ejzenštejn, Vertov, Pudovkin). There were those like David Griffith and Rudolph Arnheim who thought that this was a passing phenomenon destined to run out in a few years, avoiding the paradox according to which a «primary» biological act such as the one that binds the body and the voice can to translate into a «secondary» act like the one staged by the cinema; those like Charlie Chaplin and René Clair or, later, Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, Billy Wilder, exorcised in their works the formal revolution envisaged by speaking bodies on the limelight; others, like Siegfried Kracauer, theorized the different possibilities of counterpoint between voice and image, also coming to the conclusion that verbal language is called to succumb to the «ontological fallacy» for which the image must guide the film story.
However, it is primarily the synchrony between these two levels that crushes the image on the word (and vice versa). If, on the contrary, a «verbal intelligence» (André Bazin) capable of untying the sense of representation from that brought by the voice – as proposed by the famous Manifest of Asynchrony of 1928 – was put into play, the increase in reality is cracked by the disjunctive movement of the word towards the visual plane which at the same time gives life to fruitful counterpoints capable of adding an interesting effect of meaning to the narration. For this reason, since the Thirties, it is above all the voice-off that plays intelligently with the representation, physically disunited from the body of the image and therefore predisposed to establish a dialogue with it maintaining its autonomy from the visual level («e-autonomy», as Gilles Deleuze defines it). The voice therefore constructs itself as an independent line and at the same time close to the film, constantly on the point of meeting it in moments of profound and unexpected convergence. From the first experiments of Cavalcanti, Buñuel, Wright, Grierson to the classic «acousmatic» voices (Michel Chion) in films such as Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Doctor Mabuse, Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz or, much later, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, we come to modernity and to the definitive abandonment of a linearity of history – and consequently of a coherent encounter between voice and image – in authors such as Alain Resnais, Marguerite Duras, Éric Rohmer, Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, Pier Paolo Pasolini. The dislocation of the voice in a different space-time causes it to experience a «dislocution» (Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier) towards a representative space experienced by a tone that is now ambiguous, doubtful, opaque, far from aseptic or from the transparency required of the Hollywood voice-over or those typical of the newsreel format.
From this point of view, contemporaneity opens up a particularly interesting space for reflection: in a panorama like today's, in which the story (fictional or reality) experiences a constant medial mixture between different formats and, therefore, between different narrative lines, the element of the word – and that of the voice that embodies it – creates with the film image the main gap from which the author works the sense of the story, in a «disautomatized» relationship (Pietro Montani) between image and language which makes the vocal component one of the main ones in the medial plot in which it is involved. If today what is predominant is a «visual» (Serge Daney) that stuns the viewer to the point of drying out their intellectual performances, the voice reconstructs and preserves, in the «media environments» which most of today’s film objects give life, a dimension of the “unspeakable” and the “imaginable” precisely thanks to its disintegration of the body (the physical one of the speaker or the symbolic one of the image to which it refers) and to its continuous search for a further “otherness” to be grafted into the narrative. We trace below four possible lines of research around the theme of the voice.
Voice as an event. Taking up the term of the French philosopher Alain Badiou, who defines «event» what causes a break in the temporal continuity of life by producing the emergence of a new possible meaning, the voice often seems to play the role of creator of a discontinuous movement in cinema so the line of the narrative is brought to break and to open a different eventual space of the story. In other words, an unexpected «narrative identity» (Paul Ricoeur) often arises from the clash between voice and image. This has been happening since the origins of vocal experimentation on images, in particular that of a poetic nature (think of films such as Aubervillers by Eli Lotar, The Song of the Rivers by Joris Ivens, Night mail by Henry Watt and Basil Wright). The lyrical voices of the Thirties are the direct ancestors of those of modernity, in which an increasingly marked disjunction occurs due to a voice that envelops the representation, procuring an alienating effect on it (India song by Marguerite Duras, Last Year in Marienbad and Le chant du styrène by Alain Resnais, San soleil or La jetée by Chris Marker, La rabbia by Pier Paolo Pasolini, up to more recent examples such as Les glaneurs et la glaneuse by Agnès Varda or Nostalgia de la luz by Patricio Guzmán). In recent times, the encounter with the practice of foundfootage seems to be one of the expressive forms in which the eventual power of voice-image counterpoint is most evident: in a wake that passes through international directors such as Jonas Mekas, Péter Forgács, Jonathan Caouette, Miguel Gomes, Werner Herzog, in contemporary Italian cinema there are filmmakers (Pietro Marcello, Alina Marazzi, Marco Bellocchio, Alice Rohrwacher, Wilma Labate, Costanza Quatriglio) who work on editing starting from an oral narrative superimposed on the archive so that a story emerges from their encounter, sometimes playing on the fictional meeting between the two planes.
Voice as a search for the other. The voice as an expression of the Other is a symptom of that «shaded area» (Jean-Louis Comolli) that every good documentary is called upon to leave intact. On the assumption of this opacity and a rooting of the story starting from an “off screen” that is legitimate and indeed decisive not to show, the voices of the cinema of reality (once again starting from modernity to get to the contemporary) show particularly interesting formal elaborations. The voice off of the documentary affirms itself in the Thirties according to what Bill Nichols defines an «expository» character of the narration, that is, aimed, in a genre like that of the newsreel, exclusively at the illustration of the images shown by the visual footage from a divine position that it does not lend itself to any questioning. This tendency is opposed by the desire to operate on the contrary a «creative treatment» (John Grierson) of reality that also and above all involves the sound plane, capable more than the other expressive components of operating a «dramatization» on the form that works on dialectical procedures internal to it (often starting from a lyrical use of the voice). With the arrival of direct recording at the end of the 1950s, a previously unknown negotiation began with bodies in the image that were finally “talking” (the participatory modality of the interview, let’s take for example films like Chronique d'un été by Jean Rouch or Pasolini’s Comizi d'amore) and on the other a direct “observation” of reality (the «cinéma-verité») which, if for a short period of time produces the rejection of the narration from the off screen, presents as a counterpart the subjective intervention of the director’s voice off who begins to reflect on the modalities and failures of his own documentation process. It is therefore the voice that makes a performative drive on the part of authors more and more evident – think of the cinema of João Moreira Salles, Errol Morris, Guy Maddin, but also of the Italian one of directors such as Andrea Segre, Leonardo Di Costanzo, Giovanni Piperno, Agostino Ferrente, Marco Bertozzi –, who express their emotional involvement in the testimonial operation by proceeding to an ever less marked («nuanced», Nichols defines it) division between the attempt to register an objective level of reality and an expressive construction that builds on a specific interpretation of it and, therefore, an explicit aesthetic system.
Voice as pure sound. The voice, even when captured in the media intertwining of the film, seems to be able to retain the character of “carnality” typical of its oral exposition, preserving the emotional and/or material instability of his performance. The vocality of cinema today often presents a strong drive to regress towards an oral matrix that leads it to free itself from scriptural constraints, bringing it closer to the materiality of its phonetic body – a «vocalization» of logos, capable of returning to the prelogical dimension of discourse (Adriana Cavarero, Eric Havelock, Hélène Cixous). In many cases to be privileged in the “spectacular” dimension of the work is the subjective-emotional level of a voice that “sings” its story, physiologically directing one’s own thought, in the freedom without reins of the oral dimension – in a new form of epos (already condemned by Plato and then by Aristotle in Poetics as an expression released from a visual horizon that testified to its truthfulness and therefore often associated with a lie). From Pasolini’s non-facts films (Appunti per un’Orestiade Africana in particular, where the «oral» and brutal moment of cinema meets an original word such as the tragic one) to the Demartinian cinema of the Sixties (Stendalì by Cecilia Mangini for example, in which the voice becomes song); from the purely emotional intervention of the voice in a film like Su tutte le vette è pace by Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci-Lucchi to the «monist ontology» (Roberto De Gaetano) fielded by filmmakers such as Michelangelo Frammartino, Alberto Fasulo, Massimo D’Anolfi and Martina Parenti, who realign the vocal element on the plane of immanence produced by the cinema, treating it in the same way as other sounds and incorporating it into a natural environment from which it is not divisible. In all these cases what counts more than the semantic profile is the «vocal vegetation» (Michel De Certeau) made up of errors, hesitations, sighs, which, on the contrary, is usually excluded from the discourse. This is all the more when the image is removed and the story is consumed in the uterine darkness of the frame, from Blue by Derek Jarman to Branca de neve by João César Monteiro. The transgression towards a logical-discursive skeleton regimented in a symbolic plane is also most often ascribable to a female voice (Kaja Silverman, Mary Ann Doane, Britta Sjogren, Stella Bruzzi), more directly linked to the «sensuous thought» that precedes the interdiction by a discursive form by leading the speaking trajectory towards a voice «wholly interior» (Jacques Derrida) and abandoned to an irrational and unstable stream of consciousness as much as, in contemporary cinema, the representation it accompanies.
Voice as a medium. Today we can say that cinema is an «extended writing» (Pietro Montani) as much as that of the web, capable of integrating different media formats and building unexplored relationships between the dimension of the image and that of language. The vocal element, in «intermedial» objects such as contemporary ones, becomes one of the “scriptural” components of the filmic work. This is all the more when it literally embodies a text – think of the cinema of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet or Chantal Akerman, but also of Italian filmmakers who in the last twenty years have built their works on this figure: from the epistolary text, passing through the diary and arriving at forms of physical inscription of the “spoken” voice in the frame of the screen, in the form of captions. Or, alternatively, the medial work of the vocal element and its “integration” in the writing of the filmic text is revealed as an operator of temporal and spatial shifts within the narrative (bodies that do not correspond to their voice, past voices embedded within figures present on the scene, and so on). Or again in recent national and international production, the voice finds a new and different figurative support in animation, which seems to free the images of oral discourse – from war documentaries by directors such as Ari Folman or Rithy Panh, passing through the animations of Simone Massi and arriving at the very recent phenomenon of Zerocalcare and a series like Strappare lungo i bordi, in which the author’s talkative and egocentric monologue animates the drawn story. In all these cases the voice becomes a “medium among other media”, recalling in the mind of the viewer something similar to what he is used to seeing in creative hypertexts such as those produced by a Tik-tok video or an Instagram story and at the same time playing the archaic role of “storyteller”, anchored to a «need for a story» capable of escaping the scriptural framework. In our reality we are actually getting used to listening to the pure voice, disconnected from a visual support and close to our intimacy only by virtue of its own emanation. Think of how many today have almost abandoned the canonical written form to send a voice message to the other or talk through social networks such as Clubhouse, a virtual “room” in which people unknown to each other communicate, leaving us exclusively vocal traces. Or let’s think of a contemporary trend like that of Podcasts, representative of both these trends: on the one hand the media power of a voice that can insert itself, as opposed to an image, into a movement of life made up of simultaneous “daily” actions; on the other hand, the intimate dimension that is created (in a different way, for example, from listening to the radio) between the “I” who listens and the “you” who speaks, connected by a headset that makes them close, separated from the rest of the world and tending to recreate a dimension of primordial interaction in which the speaker is so close to the self as to melt with his perception of external reality (Martin Spinelli, Dann Lance). This same “vocal pact” lives internally practices such as that of audio books (also a recent practice), in which the known voices of the great actors are approaching our intimacy, or innovative serial formats such as Calls by Fede Álvarez, all based on interaction between acousmatic voices and computerized graphic design. This “return to the voice” was all the more evident with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, a watershed event which, even with regard to this particular circumstance, appears to have a key role. In the absence of living bodies, in the last two years it has often been voices that have come to the rescue of our nostalgia to feel close to others or simply share a story with that “other” from which we were so frightfully distanced. We think of filmic works such as Le storie che saremo by Ginko Film, Quattrostrade by Alice Rohrwacher, Rebibbia Quarantine by Zerocalcare, all attempts to approach an inexorably elusive real through the voice. The same thing happened in the theatrical field, where voice served to supplant a stage presence at that impossible moment – let’s think of the radio plays disseminated by the artists and workers of the Teatro Valle first through radio stations and then by cable broadcasting in the empty spaces of the theater; or to a project like that of Radio India, conceived by the Indian Ocean group with the resident companies of the India theater and the artist Daria Deflorian, in which stage space has always been rethought through the dramatization of vocal space. The nostalgia of the bodies has transformed into a recovery of a haptic dimension of the voice that in the same way was imposing itself, even before the virus, in the domains of everyday communication.