The Mexican comedian Mario Moreno created a popular down-and-out character called Cantinflas. From humble origins, Moreno gained fame through his charm and comic talent. He became a Mexican cinema and television icon. Over nearly five decades, he appeared in more than 40 films as well as in various TV comedy series and theatrical plays.
This book charts Moreno's rise to fame, set in the context of Mexico's drive for modernity in the decades after the revolution. Its author, Jeffrey Pilcher, has embarked on a brave venture to make the comedian accessible to outsiders. A trademark of Cantinflas's work was his word play, a maze of double meanings and innuendoes pronounced in an accent characteristic of the deprived areas in Mexico City. Translating this slang into standard Mexican Spanish is hard enough; making it comprehensible in English is something else altogether, but Pilcher does a commendable job.
Although Moreno's slang was almost incomprehensible outside Mexico City, Cantinflas had audiences throughout Latin America crying with laughter for several decades because he was much more than a word wizard. He had a talent for improvisation and perfect timing, which was complemented by his physical agility.
Pilcher tries to create a paradox between Moreno's artistic trajectory and what the author calls "the chaos of Mexican modernity". Perhaps Pilcher has failed to realise that it is not Mexico's drive to modernise that caused the chaos, but the institutionalised corruption of an unaccountable, power-hungry government.
The real paradox is between Moreno and Cantinflas. With his subtle but insolent disregard for authority, Cantinflas appealed to the masses. By contrast, Moreno became involved in the politics of the actors' union, which had close ties to the ruling party. Several of his works openly endorsed government messages. After the army's infamous massacre of students in Tlatelolco at the time of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, Moreno condemned the students as a national threat. After 1968, Cantinflas became strangely silent.
Pilcher suggests that Cantinflas shaped Mexican identity in a time of confusion and transition. Mexico has had more than its fair share of problems, but identity has never been one. What the masses identified with were the clever ways in which Cantinflas addressed issues close to them, such as figuring out where the next meal would come from or avoiding harassment by corrupt policemen. National identity was never the issue.
Having said this, this book is interesting and entertaining. It is an intelligent introduction to the singular nature of Mexican humour and how its people use it to make their lives brighter.
Alan G. Robinson was born in Mexico and divides his time between Central America and the UK, working as a forensic anthropologist.
Cantinflas and the Chaos of Mexican Modernity
Author - Jeffrey M. Pilcher
ISBN - 0 8420 69 6 and 71 8
Publisher - Scholarly Resources Inc.
Price - £55.95 and £18.95
Pages - 247