Like many another showbiz biopics, Cantinflas alternates between a pivotal later-career point in its subject life with a flashback-type main story tracing the title character's career ascension and rocky personal life. Mario Moreno (Oscar Jaenada) is a good-natured if impoverished go-getter, at various points trying his luck as a bullfighter, boxer, and minstrel performer before gradually finding his voice as a tent show comedian.
The character that would eventually make him famous, Cantinflas, like Chaplin's Little Tramp, evolves gradually. According to the movie, Moreno basically improvised an exaggerated version of himself, a garrulous pelado ("urban bum") peasant, speaking in a thick dialect described in the movie as Spanish but "pure Mexican." His popularity grows and, beginning in 1940, Cantinflas becomes a huge feature film star, eventually the biggest star of the Spanish-speaking world.
He marries Russian Valentina Ivanova Zubareff (Ilse Salas) but she's unable to bear him children. Possibly for this reason, he begins sleeping around, and later becomes a workaholic, spending most of his time alternating between film projects and ending rampant corruption in Mexico's actors' guild, the National Association of Actors (ANDA) and its independent film workers' union (STPC). Moreno's activism and increasing disconnect with his working-class fans further drives a wedge between him and Valentina.
Meanwhile, in 1955, maverick (if neophyte) movie producer Mike Todd (Michael Imperioli) is desperate to sign Cantinflas to appear in his proposed all-star epic Around the World in 80 Days. According to the movie, the film's shaky financing depends entirely upon Todd getting Cantinflas to agree to appear in the film, a scheduled press conference announcing this just days away.
Cantinflas presses all the standard biopic buttons but is hard to assess in other ways. Is it historically accurate? Does Jaenada capture the essence of both Mario Moreno and the iconic character he created? As Cantinflas, is Jaenada funny?
I don't speak much more than a smidgen of Spanish but, unlike most non-Spanish-speakers, I've actually seen seven or eight Mexican Cantinflas movies, in addition to Around the World in 80 Days. They're quite good but, to be honest, even with English subtitles only about 25% of Cantinflas's humor translates. Watching his films, as well as the recreations of famous scenes found in Cantinflas, it's easy to tell Cantinflas is being funny, but most of his humor really requires an appreciation and comprehension of both his subtle delivery and regional dialect, things English subtitles can't quite convey.
Unlike Chaplin, whose comedy was almost entirely visual (and thus universal), Cantinflas seems to have been more of a forerunner to the free-form verbal genius of American comics like Jonathan Winters and, later, Robin Williams, unclassifiable forces of nature. Cantinflas wasn't as loony as Winters nor as manic as Williams, but Cantinflas's improvised rambling seems to have evolved along similar lines. More than either Winters or Williams, Cantinflas's character, the style of his humor and the source of his appeal probably mirror most closely the Japanese comic actor Kiyoshi Atsumi, the man who played cultural icon Tora-san in 48 features.
Jaenada, near as I can tell, captures Cantinflas's voice and mannerisms as uncannily as Robert Downey, Jr. did in Chaplin and, with minimal makeup, he also looks an awful lot like Mario Moreno, if a bit thinner and more handsome than the real man. Cantinflas is much less successful recreating the myriad other Mexican (Dolores Del Rio, Lupita Tovar, Emilio "El Indio" Fernández, Pedro Armendáriz) and Hollywood stars (Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, David Niven) who make cameo appearances throughout the film. For instance, the actor briefly playing Yul Brynner looks nothing at all like that actor, though he does bear a strong resemblance to Otto Preminger. Most you'd never recognize had dialogue not identified them.
Likewise, ferret-faced Italian-American Michael Imperioli looks nothing like Polish-American Mike Todd, whose rugged, wide features suggested a darker Van Heflin. Oddly, Cantinflas seems to be trying to make Imperioli look even less like Todd, fitting the actor with a profoundly unreal jet-black hairpiece Todd never wore. The script paints Todd in clichéd terms: the eternal optimist hustler. One wishes the script allowed more of Todd's charm to come through, but Imperioli is such a fine actor - Boy, how I miss his series Detroit 1-8-7! - he manages to humanize Todd and make him likeable anyway.
Cantinflas's "adopted" son (actually the son of a later mistress, adopted by Zubareff shortly before her death) officially sanctioned the movie. It acknowledges the actor's infidelity, but also strains to put a positive spin on this and Moreno's other faults. The business with Todd and his desperation to sign Cantinflas to keep the financing from collapsing entirely seem exaggerated, at least to me, and the heavenly intervention of Charlie Chaplin (Julian Sedgwick) apocryphal. The movie claims, perhaps accurately, that Cantinflas was originally sought for a mere cameo in Todd's film, though by the end (unexplained in the movie) he wound up playing the second lead, Phileas Fogg's resolutely French valet, Jean Passepartout. Signing Cantinflas made box-office sense, helping to insure ticket sales throughout the Spanish-speaking world, but this isn't explained well in the movie.
Video & Audio
Apparently shot digitally, Cantinflas looks pretty good on DVD, in 16:9 enhanced (1.78:1) widescreen. Some of the CGI recreations are pretty obvious on bigger screens, but mostly it's up to contemporary viewing standards. The 5.1 Dolby Digital Audio is pretty strong, with English subtitles for the Spanish dialogue, which makes up about 75% of the film. Spanish subtitles for the English-language scenes are also available. The disc is Region 1 encoded.
The only supplement is a brief promo featurette, "Cantinflas: From Mexico to the Big Screen." It has interviews and behind-the-scenes material, but runs less than five minutes. A Digital UltraViolet copy is included, while the feature presentation is preceded by what seemed like 300 trailers for other Lionsgate titles.
Certainly intriguing but not innovative, Cantinflas informs those unfamiliar with this beloved Mexican comedian while Spanish-speaking fans will find it interesting and entertaining for other reasons. Mildly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.