Muhammad Ali speaks fluent Italian and so do ET, the Royal Tenenbaums and every dinner guest at Gosford Park. The dubbing industry remains a bedrock in Italy, where nearly every film, from Oscar-winners to straight-to-video Bruce Dern movies, gets voiced over. More than 70 dubbing companies lend their voices to hundreds of film and television projects every year. Dubbers have their own version of the Oscars, called the Voice in the Shadows awards, and schools specialising in the craft are well attended.

The students of Marco Mori, one such school in Rome, start class by standing in the recesses of an unlit stage. The black boots, trousers, sweatshirt and long heavy-metal hair of Marco Benevento fold him into the dark. The 23-year-old becomes little more than his deep, milky voice, practising monkish Ahhhhs, followed by a staccato run through the vowels. You must totally immerse yourself in the character, explained Benevento, whose dream is to become the Italian voice for the nasal Nicholas Cage. Such aspirations are not uncommon for young dubbers, who consider popular foreign actors as ideal roles.

At a certain point dubbing becomes a creative expression, an art, says film history and criticism professor Maurizio De Benedictus of La Sapienza University in Rome. We have the best dubbers in the world.

Famous dubbers can become national treasures, and when they die it shakes the industry and makes front-page news. With the death of the legendary Ferruccio Amendola last year, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Sylvester Stallone, Peter Falk and Bill Cosby (star of the family sitcom The Robinsons) all lost their Italian voices.

Since a handful of famous Italians claim many Hollywood actors, young dubbers like Pierfrancesco Ambrogio hope to find a rising star. This way we can have a parallel, said the 33-year-old Ambrogio, one of the 50 students enrolled in the four-month programme at Marco Moris school.

A lasting parallel between a Hollywood face and an Italian voice forges the illusion of an Italian-speaking universe, reaching from Woody Allens idiosyncratic New York to Yodas swampy planet. But when the Italian voice changes and breaks the parallel, a heavy layer of artifice is exposed.

The combination of a character, the actor playing that character and the Italian dubber can make a bit of a Frankenstein, admitted De Benedictus.

It doesnt take a cinephile to understand that subtitles bring filmgoers closer to the original movie. Other European countries with important film histories, like France and Britain, use them and have long considered dubbing anathema. Yet Italy persists.

The strong dubbing tradition here can be traced back to after 1945, when American movies flooded the market and dubbing was a good way for unemployed actors to find work in the war-ravaged country. It was also a logical alternative to subtitles at the time. After two decades of oppressive fascism, much of Italys population was bereft of the sophistication and foreign languages of its European neighbours. According to De Benedictus, many Italians couldnt keep up with the blurry white sentences along the bottom of the screen.

But inability to read is no longer an excuse for shrugging off subtitles, and many think that dubbing actually contributes to Italys stubbornly low foreign language proficiency. You learn so much of a language with subtitles, said popular Italian actress Claudia Gerini in a recent promotion for an Italian television channels new original language movie night. Yet the majority of television programming and movie bills still rely largely on foreign imports, making dubbing a viable market for young actors.

Back at Marco Moris school the students in his advanced class face a small movie screen in a dark studio. They listen to the screen actors voices in headphones, whisper their lines and clear their throats. They speak into a microphone behind a long, script-blanketed podium. The hardest thing is capturing the actors vocal quirks, the 48-year-old Mori reminds them. Dubbing is not regular theatre and it requires the highest level of subtlety.

Ambrogio had the tough task of reproducing Bruce Derns sneaky grumble in the less than box-office-breaking 1998 television movie Perfect Prey. Several times Mori burst in from the bright control room to say that Ambrogios Italian sounded too sexy. You must be less breathless, stop groaning so much, he said.