Cantinflas (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Cantinflas (2014)

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Before he was an international star, Mario Moreno was a struggling performer trying to find his voice in Mexico.  Before Around the World in 80 Days delighted the world, producer Mike Todd had trouble getting the studios heads to believe in his vision.  Sebastian del Amo's film, Cantinflas, tells the story of these two men as they find their voices and work toward success.  Cantinflas stars Óscar Jaenada and Michael Imperioli.

Don't sweat the momentCantinflas made me grateful for the opportunity to learn about a different facet of film history that I have little knowledge of. I have long admired the new wave of Mexican directors, such as Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro, that emerged over the last decade. But their considerable talents did not give me greater insight into the history of Mexican film, something that Cantinflas – no matter how slight – accomplishes in its small run time.

But outside of that intellectual appreciation I was absolutely captivated by the first act of Cantinflas. The charming throwback to the pristine artificiality of old studio films was beautifully captured in those opening scenes. Óscar Jaenada’s sparkling performance as the shabby Cantinflas just added to the warmth and frequently entertained even as the film began its descent. The decline in quality was not too bad at first and I thought the sparse doldrums were built into the problems with biographical films in general and less issues specific with Cantinflas.

Cantinflas has great cinematography that teaches how Moreno was always performing because he could always find an audience.

Cantinflas has great shots that teach how Moreno was always performing because he could always find an audience.

Then, just as quickly as Cantinflas delighted me, the air went out of the film and never recovered. Director Sebastian del Amo miscalculated where the strength of Cantinflas’ story is. Instead of the personal triumphs and declines of Cantinflas the film reveals it has higher aims in targeting the elitism of the Mexican and Hollywood cinematic establishments in equal measure. Dramatic dialogue about social ills spills out into the screen as an uneasy fit to the manufactured settings and hazy gloss of del Amo’s film.

For now, we’ll stick to the bright side of Cantinflas. If nothing else it is a gorgeous triumph of cinematography and production design. The opening images of Cantinflas show a bright world lit to showcase every comic expression on Cantinflas’ face as he ascends the entertainment ladder. Even at night the mud that he tramples in is lit brightly, emphasizing both his dour sentiment and the sticky morass of failure. Cantinflas looks like a feature-length soap opera, and I mean that in the nicest way because it’s a great fit for the big emotions at the core of the story.

The early delights of Cantinflas aren’t just in the visuals, but the way del Amo uses the environment to provide a running soundtrack on Cantinflas’ life. Early on a moment where Cantinflas makes eyes at an attractive girl and his boss, written as the sturdy cliché he is, tells the love struck young man the girl is his daughter. At this exact moment we hear what would be canned laughter in a sitcom, but here is the diagetic guffaws of a theater audience elsewhere in the building. Even the accents of the various characters in the lives of Cantinflas and Mike Todd (Michael Imperioli) are heightened to the point where I wrote that a mysterious advice-dropping character in Mike’s time was “the most proper British man in existence.”

That glistening old studio shine works well for the light aspects of the film but is a poor fit when it turns to drama.

That glistening old studio shine works well for the lighter aspects of Cantinflas but is a poor fit when it turns to drama.

This man, as he provides the present-day Mike a way to solve his dilemma, also signals the downward trend of Cantinflas at large. The problem with the general construction of del Amo’s screenplay, co-written with Edui Tijerina, is that the past takes great leaps forward and misses significant events in Cantinflas’ life while Mike’s production troubles continue in tighter sequence. Cantinflas goes from a light-hearted performer to a man quarreling with his wife and having relations with groupies almost entirely between cuts. These moments are signaled with another bit of fun self-awareness as the groupies are dressed as devils and Jaenada looks powerfully depressed at the prospect of this affection.


But this self-awareness does not extend to the overall visual style. When the dialogue turns toward the darker aspects of Cantinflas’ life and social justice issues the images remain just as pristine and fake as ever. Embracing the ridiculousness of the old studio system through the soft focus and big emotions works brings a certain truth out about the joys of making movies during this time. The same sheen applied to the darker aspect just highlights how poorly integrated and thought out the dramatic turn is. The powerful honesty obtained through a glorious lie becomes a painful slog through routine biographical drama – complete with “I don’t even know you anymore” scenes.

So I thank Cantinflas for peaking my interest in a period of cinematic history I might have otherwise not thought about. I also appreciated the time I got to spend in that dusty boxing ring and immaculate studio lots of Cantinflas. These pleasures will not be forgotten, I just wish the rest of the film inspired in the same way.

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Title - CantinflasCantinflas (2014)

Directed by Sebastian del Amo.
Screenplay written by Sebastian del Amo and Edui Tijerina.
Starring Óscar Jaenada, Michael Imperioli, and Ilse Salas.

Posted by Andrew

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