July 29, 2020

Celebrating an International Sensation: Netflix’s “Money Heist”

By Stuart Mitchner

In Money Heist, feelings, fraternity and love are as important as the plots. A perfect heist, rational and cool, becomes something else when spiced up with Latin emotions.

—Álex Pina

In this season of death and discontent, why do I find myself compulsively whistling, humming, thinking, and feeling the old anti-fascist protest anthem, “Bella Ciao”? Even the cardinals in our backyard are getting into the act; instead of sweet sweet sweet, I’m hearing ciao ciao ciao! The pure and piercing clarity of the sound conveys another message, not goodbye beautiful, but hello hello hello.

The source of my “Bella Ciao” euphoria is the Netflix sensation Money Heist [Casa del Papel], whose recently released fourth season drew 65 million viewers around the world. By early 2018, when Álex Pina’s creation was already the most-watched non-English language series in Netflix history, and one of the most watched overall, the singing of “Bella Ciao” at key moments in the action inspired an international onslaught of cover versions.

“A Cultural Juggernaut”

The most informative account of Money Heist I’ve been able to find is in the April 2, 2020 Guardian (“It’s pure rock’n’roll”), where after hailing “a world-changing, cultural juggernaut of a TV show,” Ellen Jones writes, “The first season of the full-throttle thriller saw its gang – all code-named after major cities and memorably clad in revolutionary-red overalls and Salvador Dalí masks – break into the Royal Mint of Spain taking 67 people hostage and literally printing money: 2.4 billion euros, to be exact.”    

Referring to the series’ “anti-system” philosophy, invoked whenever gang members sing “Bella Ciao,” Jones quotes Álex Pina: “First and foremost, the series is meant to entertain, but an idea runs underneath. Skepticism towards governments, central banks, the system.” After pointing out the series’ roots in Don Quixote (“To rise up against the system is reckless and idealistic”), Pina claims the latest season has the power to “infuse some oxygen into this disturbing climate,” comparing it to “a brutal journey to the limit” while promising that “the audience will not think of Covid-19 while watching it.”

Beware Dubbing

So far nothing I’ve read about this series does it justice. Money Heist has won 23 awards since its 2017 debut, including an international Emmy for the best drama series. The New York Times’ Mike Hale ranked it sixth on his list of the Best International Shows of 2018 (“a joy ride in every sense”). I wish I could believe Noel Murray’s claim in the July 21 Times (“The 50 Best TV Shows on Netflix Right Now”), that the show’s “unpredictability and outsized characters have made it one of the rare foreign television series to find a big and appreciative audience in the United States.”

Even taking into account the social-media word of mouth that made Money Heist an international favorite, the overriding question is can a series with subtitles make it big in the American market? By “big” I mean a hit of Game of Thrones/Breaking Bad magnitude. Apparently Netflix has doubts. A year ago the Times devoted an in-depth article to the issue, headed “Netflix Wants to Make Its Dubbed Foreign Shows Less Dubby” (July 19, 2019), subheaded,   “The company is betting that better English versions of international hits like ‘Money Heist’ will inspire more Americans to watch them.” It’s depressing to read that the majority of Netflix subscribers in the United States already prefer dubbed versions of international shows to subtitled ones, including 72 percent of American viewers of Money Heist. If, like my wife and I, you’ve seen all four subtitled seasons in the space of a month, you’ll want to tell your friends and neighbors to avoid dubbed versions of this unmissable show. I say that even though I’ve just learned that our next-door neighbors, to whom we owe a Spanish Royal Mint’s worth of thanks for recommending Money Heist in the first place, were responding to the dubbed version! What better proof of this show’s seductive force as an all-encompassing viewing experience?

Even so, I’m still passionately encouraging potential viewers to watch the subtitled version of Money Heist. The Spanish language is the element the series lives in, its heart and soul, its music. There are two absolutely necessary voices that no English-speaking actor in the world could match: that of the Professor (Álvaro Morte), who masterminds the heist, and the female life-force code-named Tokyo (Úrsula Corberó), whose voiceover narration binds everything together, always there when you need it. To believe in the Professor and the faith his students have in him, you need to hear the distinctive sound of his own measured, formidably credible voice; and to maintain your faith in the narrative credibility of the show itself, you have to be within whispering proximity of Corberó, up close and personal with her spirited, slyly, sexually explosive, gun-bearing Tokyo. Quoted in the Guardian article, Corberó says of Money Heist, “It has something different, especially for non-Spanish people. We have this way of expressing ourselves, of exchanging our feelings that goes through the screen.” The same idea is implicit in showrunner Pina’s comment that “feelings, fraternity and love are as important as the plots. A perfect heist, rational and cool, becomes something else when spiced up with Latin emotions.”

How much of the spice of those feelings can survive a second and third hand passage through the dubbing process? It’s the virtual vs. personal, “being there” vs. the “no there there” of strictly coached actor intermediaries in a Los Angeles recording studio like the one described by the Times, “reading English dialogue aloud as it scrolled karaoke-like” under scenes from the show. Imagine an Israeli actress attempting to sigh, shrug, shake her head in synch with the Professor’s brilliant police inspector adversary Raquel Murillo (an all-out, full-hearted performance by Itziar Ituño). How close to her character can you get, and how close to the intensity of that fascinating love-hate, cat and mouse romance, if the dubbing director behind the sound board keeps interrupting, (“Don’t say ‘Professor,’ that’s too dubby!”). 

A Superhero in Pajamas

Álvaro Morte’s Professor is a new kind of superhero, a heady mix of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Kent, Superman, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Antonio Banderas and Walter White. As the violin is to Sherlock Holmes, making origami animal shapes is to the Professor. And whenever he needs a reality check, there’s someone, usually Corberó’s Tokyo, who brings him down to earth. Like the time when he was about reject the youngest member of his gang of eight for irresponsible habits of speech and a weakness for video games. Into the Professor’s room storms the indomitable Corberó, sees him standing there, a grown man, bearded, bespectacled, in a pair of striped, little-boy-at-bedtime pajamas: “Have you seen yourself? Who buys your clothes?” Then she spots one of his origami creations and holds it up to the light. “What’s this?” As he rushes over to rescue it (“It’s an ancient technique,” nerdish to the core), she scoffs, “Hey, what’s the matter? Are you afraid I’ll break your paper figurines?” Wagging it in the air, mockingly: “Eh! Eh! Welcome to Jurassic Park! Help, the dinosaur is eating me!” After giving him and his pajamas a long look, she says, “What’s the difference between this and playing video games?”

Our response to the scene, one of many that reflect the show’s humanity, was no less gratifying, felt, and immediate when accompanied by English subtitles. The spoken Spanish energy of Corberó relishing the moment is less likely to come across when the actress doing the dubbing in L.A. is being told, “Hey, too dubby!”

The Professor can withstand subtitles; if anything, they suggest the kind of complementary gravitas necessary to conduct an occupation of epic, historic, politically consequential proportions; besides being an ingeniously resourceful leader, he’s a skilled fighter when he has to be, a hero, a lover, a clown, a slapstick acrobat who can create disguises on the spot, frantically figuring his way out of tight spots. He’s average height, dark, handsome, albeit bespectacled and neatly bearded, soft-spoken, deceptively shy, the studious type who excels at chess and, yes, origami, pondering moves and forming shapes while he sits in a shabby command center outside the action, watching over remote video feed the “students” who are risking their lives to pull off his mission impossible. The Professor has anticipated every scenario, as much the author of the play as its lead actor, and he’s in it for more than the money. Crucial to his plan is that none of the hostages be injured or killed, “no blood shed,” because in the political endgame the goal is to have the sympathy of the public, to be seen as heroes striking at the heart of a police state. Again, he’s thinking like an author who wants his principal characters to compel the sympathy and affection of the audience. It’s this premise that more than anything else lifts the show to a higher level, above and beyond the action, of which there is plenty.

If and when Money Heist catches on the way it should, people in the streets of Portland and Seattle will be singing “Bella Ciao.” You might even hear it sung in the streets of cities after which its characters are named: Denver, Berlin, Tokyo, Rio, Nairobi,  Helsinki, Moscow, Oslo, Lisbon, Stockholm, Marseilles, Bogota, and Palermo. You can see why this show is a worldwide phenomenon.