On the centenary of his birth and 18 years after his death, the Mexican actor and comedian certainly left us when we needed him most. He may not have invented relativity but he did invent a relatively less miserable way of being.
With his appearance of the perpetual loser (and Hemingway was not yet buried) and impenetrable turn of phrase that could bring tears to the eyes of even those least sympathetic to his particular brand of comedy, Cantinflas the Mexican Everyman would have been 100 years old on 12 August. But there’s the rub. He made his final exit and cinema lost the genius with the invisible raincoat.
At a time before social posturing became fashionable, he brought the “peladito” character to life, the penniless slum dweller that won him popularity as far afield as Japan.
With his caustic wit, Cantinflas, whose real name was Mario Moreno, was one of those rare highpoints in cinema history. The fact that he expressed himself in Spanish, or a kind of ‘non-subversive Aztec Spanish’, meant that he failed to achieve universal acclaim, but for anyone who has seen “There’s the rub” or other great films of his such as “I, Columbus”, it is impossible to claim that his monologues were in any way academic or that he reminded them of Don Quixote.
Cantinflas, who would have had much in common with today’s malcontents fighting on the streets of Madrid, London or Paris, was a one-off, never to be repeated.
He was a Mexican but the kind of Mexican films that were beginning to corner the European market just before World War II certainly had nothing to do with the desperation that marked his anguished expression of life. They bore no relation to the perpetual buffoon who shaved of (the middle of) his little moustache , which perhaps foreshadowed those other moustachioed characters, the thugs of European butchery, Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco.
In 1939, the first Cannes Film Festival premiered María Candelaria (Xochimilco) a fine example of Mexican “costumbrista” ciFnFema directed by Emilio Fernández with the winning combination of Dolores del Río and Pedro Armendáriz in the lead roles.
It should have guaranteed the cinematic invasion of Europe by that country of great dreams without military conquerors. Mexico should have taken Europe by storm with that film, after so many years in the cinematic wilderness. However, Hitler was yet to understand the potential of film as a powerful propaganda weapon and having no muse of his own to stop it with he cut short the newly inaugurated festival and poor Mexico fell into oblivion amid the horrors of world war.
Around 1950, Luis Buñuel, who was as Mexican as he was French and Spanish, restored Mexico’s international credibility with The Forgotten (aka The Young and the Damned), one of the finest achievements in world cinema and a film in which Cantinflas himself could very well have appeared, with that insolent expression of his saying ‘look but don’t touch’.
International cinema production was doing well by the 1980s, and I realised then, thanks to Mexican film producer Carlos Amador, that Mexico had got what it takes to be a world player in the film industry.
In June 1984 in Mexico City, the country’s film producers held a kind of mass gathering on one of the enormous sets at the Churubusco Studios, where some Hollywood-style nonsense called Conan the Barbarian had been filmed. I understood why my friend wanted me to see it. Mexican cinema did not only have talent; it was an industry that Hollywood was already beginning to take notice of.
Then the waves of successive economic crises broke. The dollar rose in value, the rest of the world got poorer and cinema went out of focus while into Sergio Leonean-style close-up came the speculators – the real lead actors of the motion picture we are still sitting through now in 2011.
While millionaire film actress María Félix, as mistakenly arrogant as she was rich, wandered through the Bois de Boulogne in Paris with the rather disconcerting grace of a Mexican woman, Mario Moreno Cantinflas carried on making his films.
He became the king of sarcastic, humanist comedy. He was much better than Charlie Chaplin, who could be malevolent when he wanted to be, which was quite often, and always played opportunistically on people’s feelings.
Cantinflas was pure experience, real life and the tragedy of the streets. He would slap poverty in the face to wake it up a bit. His humour and his way of telling us we are a bunch of bloody idiots were more than a match for Chaplin and the Marx brothers who left us a whole catalogue of brilliant one-liners.
No, Cantinflas did not know how to talk. He was not one for the elegant, well-turned phrase to be spoken in drawing rooms devoid of intelligence and full of egotism.
Cantinflas, you will understand by now, was no champagne actor. At most he might knock back a tequila. He did not talk. He would spit instead. He spat our stupidity at us to see whether for once and for all we would swallow it and finally learn something.
*The author is a French writer and journalist living in Spain.
(Translated by Susan Hubbard – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)