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.

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