Cantinflas (2014) cultural background notes

I saw the film Cantinflas (2014) this weekend. I liked it, but thought it was a little too Hollywood-centric. If you want to see the movie and don’t know anything about Cantinflas, I wrote some cultural background for you:

(1) Who is Cantinflas“Cantinflas” is the stage name of a Mexican comedy actor, real name Mario Fortino Alfonso Moreno Reyes, who lived 1911 to 1993. He was famous for his word play, and in particular word play that used Mexican Spanish vocabulary and idiomatic phrases. The 1900s were a time when Mexico was creating its independent identity after revolution, a time of increasing Mexican pride in mestizo/mixed heritage and culture whereas before Spanish/European culture was considered supreme. Mexican Spanish has a lot of words derived from Nahuatl, the Aztec language. To understand Cantinflas’ comedy, you needed to understand these common Mexican Spanish words.

(2) Cantinflas’ comedy style — The actor has resulted in the Spanish verb cantinflear, which means “to speak a lot and say little; to babble; to speak in a nonsensical way.” This is in reference to Cantinflas’ exaggerated obsfugation of language, and his “extemporaneous, incoherent verbiage”. It is funny because it superficially mimics the flowery language of more powerful people (upper classes, pedantics, bureaucrats, authorities, etc.) while really not communicating much. Additionally, Cantinflas builds off of misunderstandings and uses a lot of wordplay, moving dialogue from its original topic to “chaotic” tangents. I think the translators of Cantinflas (2014) worked best with the wordplay, and had a harder time with the babbling. It’s not their fault. When the native language dialogue is wordy and babbly, you know it’s on purpose. When the subtitles are wordy and babbly, you naturally first wonder if the translation is just bad. This may affect the comedic timing if you aren’t fluent in Spanish. The babbling scenes are short and few, though, so don’t worry about this.

(3) The mural “La historia del teatro” (History of the theater) that Diego Rivera drew featuring Cantinflas in the center — A few scenes in the movie feature it, but it isn’t explained. The mural features Cantinflas taking money from the rich with one hand and passing it to the poor with another. This is in reference to Cantinflas’ successful acting career, his resulting fortune, his acting roles which celebrated the underdogs, and especially his philanthropy. As the actor once said, “El mundo debería reírse más, pero después de haber comido” (The world should laugh more, but after having eaten).

(4) The source of Cantinflas’ stage name — This is a scene in the movie. A drunk heckler complains about the babbling comedy style by asking, “¿para hablar así, en la cantina cuántas te inflas?” (to talk like that, how many did you put down in the pub?) The noun cantina (bar, pub), plus the colloquial meaning of the verb inflarse (to get drunk), plus the literal meaning of the verb inflar (to inflate, to exaggerate), were assembled into the portmanteau that became Cantinflas.

(5) Music. The movie has a great soundtrack. La Santa Cecilia has a song in the film, “Tu Vida Es Un Escenario” (Your Life is a Stage). That made me happy! Aleks Syntek has a song, too, “Riete De Amor Hasta Que Mueras” (Laugh From Love Until You Die).

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