The Immortal Cantinflas

MARTIN BOYD*

Throughout the Spanish-speaking world and in Mexico in particular, Cantinflas is a cultural icon. With Cantinflas, the Mexican comedian Mario Moreno created a character who featured in more than 50 films and became an emblematic image of Mexico’s national identity: the archetypal “pelado”, obtuse, at times insane but always hilarious, with a strong dose of social satire.

The film Cantinflas, is an ambitious biopic on the life of the Mexican comedian, and in particular on his short-lived burst of stardom in the English-speaking world playing the lead role in the film Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), one of the few films in English in which he appeared. Although this new film, directed by Sebastián del Amo, has met with a mixed reception, with accusations of “malinchismo” (the Mexican word for the cultural inferiority complex that tends to assume the superiority of all things foreign over anything Mexican) due to its casting of a Spaniard instead of a Mexican in the title role, it is to be hoped that the international success of Cantinflas will awaken renewed interest in the work of this great comedian, satirist and social commentator.

Cantinflas’s success in the Spanish-speaking world was so great that his name has even given the Spanish language a new word: the verb cantinflear was added to the Royal Spanish Academy dictionary (DRAE) in 1992. The DRAE defines the word as “speaking like Cantinflas, saying a lot of words that sound intelligent but that in reality have no logical unity or possible interpretation.” Linguists have been unable to identify exactly who introduced cantinflear to the dictionary but believe that it became part of common parlance in Mexico, Spain and Chile as early as the 1950s. And there is also the noun “cantinflada”, which refers to any specific instance of cantinflear. Most of the cantinfladas are so firmly rooted in the Spanish language that they are almost impossible to translate, particularly because many of them depend on puns that lose their meaning in any other language. Below I offer a few of his more memorable cantinfladas. “There you have it, Your Honour. It’s neither one nor the other, but rather the complete opposite.”

“If it’s difficult I can get it done right away; if it’s impossible it takes me a little longer.”
“There are moments in life that are truly momentary.”

* Canadian writer and translator based in Toronto.  www.dialogos.ca martin@dialogos.ca