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‘Cantinflas’ can’t provide answers

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media  

“Cantinflas” profiles the life of the popular Mexican comedic actor. He is widely considered the most beloved figure in 20th century Mexican cinema.

“Cantinflas” starts off strong, which invites high expectations. A Hollywood reporter breathlessly provides an industry perspective on the upcoming 1956 season. The most highly touted film is Paramount Picture’s Biblical epic, “The Ten Commandments,” directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Charlton Heston. Also vying for attention are Twentieth Century Fox’s “The King and I,” an adaptation of the Broadway hit, “Anna and the King of Siam,” with Yul Brynner in the lead. Then, there is Warner Brothers’ “Giant,” based on Edna Feber’s novel, which included James Dean in what would become his final film. Rounding out the field is United Artists. It is associated with the adaptation of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days.” However, the studio has still not committed to shooting the film, which was still uncast and being mounted by Broadway impresario, Mike Todd (Michael Imperioli). He had never produced a film. This narrative sequence confers a strong sense of time and place.

This photo released by KenloFilms.com and Pantelion Films shows Ana Layevska as Miroslava Stern and Oscar Jaenada as Mario Moreno in a scene from the film, "Cantinflas." (AP Photo/KenloFilms.com and Pantelion Films, Angel Gonzalez)

This photo released by KenloFilms.com and Pantelion Films shows Ana Layevska as Miroslava Stern and Oscar Jaenada as Mario Moreno in a scene from the film, “Cantinflas.” (AP Photo/KenloFilms.com and Pantelion Films, Angel Gonzalez)

Alas, this is quickly squandered as the film then abruptly flash backs to Mexico in the early 1930’s. A young man, Mario Moreno (Óscar Jaenada), is eagerly seeking employment. There is little explication of his background, but it seems apparent that he is an impoverished campesino. Moreno attempts to become a pugilist, then a bull-fighter. Each time, his efforts are unintentionally amusing, rather than effective.

As presented by the film, the protagonist eventually became a performer in the tent show circuit. His routine seems to be driven by his unintentional mangling of the Spanish language. The film suggests that Caninflas’ stage name hailed from a drunken heckler at one of his shows, who compared the struggling comic to a cantina fly. In reality, the origin of Moreno’s stage name is obscure.

Moreno assumed this persona of Cantinflas. His on-screen persona wore a distinctive moustache with two oddly disconnected lateral projections along with a costume, which included a crumpled hat, bandana, and a rope in lieu of a belt. Between 1936 to 1981, he appeared in  more than fifty films, doing his Cantinflas schtick.

Cantinflas’ career took a turn, when he was cast as the co-protagonist in “Around the World in 80 Days.” The film won five Academy Awards, including the Best Film category. Cantinflas garnered a Golden Globe for providing what was determined to be the best performance in a musical or a comedy. Despite his appetite for international success, Cantinflas abandoned the Hollywood scene after making only two additional films. The film’s treatment of his decision is thoroughly unsatisfying.

The structure of this film is highly problematic. The principal focus thematically is the efforts by Michael Todd to bring “Around the World in 80 Days” to the screen. However, the bulk of the film’s footage is dominated by Cantinflas’ fledgling efforts to become an entertainer and his rise to pre-eminent status in his native Mexico. The intermittent segues between these different periods are arbitrary, sloppy, and disconcerting. Moreover, there is a poor narrative trajectory and a virtually non-existent synergy between the different plot elements.

A screen capture of the trailer for the film "Cantinflas" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-7Zg0l6NKk

A screen capture of the trailer for the film “Cantinflas” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-7Zg0l6NKk

The film is quite weak with regard to providing a cross-cultural overview or a consistent perspective. One of the most salient issues about Cantinflas is the disparity between his sustained popularity in Latin countries and his ephemeral success outside of it. When “Around the World in 80 Days’ was released in the United States and other Anglophonic countries, David Niven as Victorian gentleman, Phileas Fogg, was promoted as its lead. The film glosses over the fact that despite his pronounced Mexican accent, Cantinflas was incongruously cast as his French valet, Passpartout. It neglects to mention the fact that in Spanish-speaking counties, Cantinflas, rather than Niven, was the top-listed actor. Throughout the film, it shifts not only between eras, but also between Spanish dialogue with English subtitles and English dialogue with Spanish subtitles.

“Cantinflas” is beset with some glaring errors, which seem nothing short of bizarre. The film suggests that Elizabeth Taylor (Barbara Mori) was conversant in English, but had the accent of a Latina. Even the most casual movie fans are aware that she did not. The film glosses over the fact that Taylor rebuffed Todd’s overtures to appear in “Around the World in 80 Days,” but eventually made him her third of seven husbands. In a scene that depicts the 1956 Golden Globes, the emcee mispronounces the name of one of Cantinflas’ fellow nominees, Yul Brynner. Really — did no one involved with film notice this egregious blunder?

Cantinflas is an important figure in the history of world cinema. He deserves a film that places him in a proper context and one, which demonstrates why audiences found him so endearing. Unfortunately, “Cantinflas” fails to provide either.

** PG (for thematic elements, language, smoking and some suggestive material) 106 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. Her welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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