The biopic is a genre that has come under much scrutiny from cinephiles over the years. For some, it’s cherished for its reliably inspiring design. For others it’s mere “Oscar bait”, emblematic of Hollywood’s aversion to more daring material. No matter how you feel about the genre however, all signs indicate that these true life stories won’t be going away any time soon. The challenge therefore, is finding a way to stand out within the confines of the genre. In the case of Cantinflas, Sebastian del Amo attempts to shake up this formula by approaching its subject with a light, comic approach.
Cantinflas opens with its own reference to the difficulties of achieving excellence within a genre. After a montage that recalls explaining the popularity of epics in 1950s, we meet Michael Todd, a man with a vision to create a film that will surpass them all. His goal is to make Around the World in Eighty Days the biggest, most entertaining movie of all time. For his lofty plan to be successful however, he’ll need the help of the world’s biggest stars. One of those is Mexico’s Mario Moreno (also known as Catinflas), their most successful comedian. With limited funding available from his struggling studio (United Artists), Todd must use all of his powers of persuasion to get the film produced. Mixing this narrative with flashbacks to chronicle Cantinflas’ rise from the small stage to stardom, we learn how several lucky breaks lead him to that fateful collaboration with Todd.
To quote Cantinflas himself then, “there lies the rub”. On the one hand, it’s nice to see a biopic that isn’t too self-serious about its subject. However, in making the film so constantly pleasant, it removes the inspirational qualities that make a biopic compelling. Yes, Cantinflas’ story is one of triumph, but what about the adversity? In the screenplay every setback seems to be quickly remedied, as Cantinflas literally stumbles into his acting career (he initially intended to be a boxer). Perhaps this is true to his experiences but it hardly makes for compelling viewing. Todd’s storyline isn’t any more enthralling either, as we never learn much about him other than his determination to make this massive film. Instead we’re given brief impressions of famous actors in an effort to appeal to our nostalgia. Apart from a luminous Bárbara Mori as Elizabeth Taylor however, the casting isn’t convincing enough.
To the film’s credit though, it does feature a pair of fine performances from Óscar Jaenada and Ilse Salas. As Cantinflas, Jaenada is very believable. His effervescence and charisma perfectly captures the Chaplin-esque appeal that made him so beloved. Though as good as he is, Salas almost steals the show with her deeply felt performance as Cantinflas’ wife Valentina. It’s almost enough to make you wish the story was told from her perspective. Indeed, the film would be nearly devoid of emotional or thematic depth without her character.
Despite a few committed performances there isn’t much to be enthused about in Cantinflas. Like Valentina, it leaves us wanting more of Mario Moreno the man, rather than the superficial persona of Cantinflas. Consequently, the film ends up becoming just as bland as the formula it tries to avoid.
Cantinflas is currently playing in theaters.
Cantinflas is the Mexican submission for the 2014 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Click here for reviews of other official submissions.