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Federico Fellini retrospectives are not rare events, but “Tutto Fellini,” the series currently unspooling at the American Film Institute (AFI), is unique in one respect: It’s the first film series to arrive in Washington with all its dialogue translated by a “Softitler.” The device, invented by New York-based Italian film programmer Fabrizio Fiumi, produces subtitles that are really sub: They run below the screen on an electronic signboard.

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The advantages of the system, which has been used a few times previously at the National Gallery of Art and Filmfest DC, are both practical and aesthetic. “You don’t get letters across Marcello [Mastroianni]’s mouth just as he’s beginning his big monologue,” notes Michael Jeck, program planner at AFI’s Kennedy Center Theater. Perhaps more significantly, Softitled prints can potentially be shown anywhere, even in countries whose filmgoing population is too small to justify burning titles in the local language into new prints. To screen films in 20 different languages, Jeck explains, “They only have to have one print and 20 different disks.” That’s because the electronic cues on the print can activate Softitles in any language.

The Fellini series, for example, was booked in some 15 cities—in Europe, North America, and Asia—where eight different languages are commonly spoken. The same prints were used in each city. In the AFI Theater’s projection both, film booker John Sery demonstrates the system’s simplicity. An optical reader added between the projector and the takeup reel cues two microcomputers (one provided just for backup). “There’s a time code on the prints and that keeps the subtitles in sync,” Sery says. If the film slows or stops, the Softitles will keep pace with it, even backing up if necessary. The titles are provided on a standard 3-inch disk, which easily can be corrected or exchanged.

If AFI’s programmers wanted to screen La Dolce Vita the way it was shown during the Bombay run, all they would have to do is pop the Hindi disc into the Softitler reader. (In theaters where that would be appropriate, two languages can run at once.) Because the titles are now below the screen, sight lines can be a problem in some theaters. “I was going to put up a note, “Italian speakers only, Rows 1 through 4,’ because of the head problem,” jokes Jeck, whose customary choice of seat at the AFI Theater is so unequivocal that he named his film-distribution company, R5/S8, after it. “For this,” he admits, “I sit one or two rows further back than I usually do.”