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Mexico celebrates comic Cantinflas on the centennial of his birth

August 12, 2011 |  1:41 pm

Cantinflas, the impish master of hilariously nonsensical wordplay and Mexico’s unofficial patron saint of comedy, would have turned 100 today. The country, which could use a few laughs, is using the occasion for a monthlong celebration of his influence on Mexican film and culture.

For the rest of August, the late comic actor, whose real name was Mario Moreno Reyes, will be the  subject of exhibitions, film retrospectives, panel discussions and even a dance in his honor. Along tree-shaded Paseo de la Reforma, an outdoor exhibition of blown-up black-and-white photos and colorful movie posters provides a sense of how Cantinflas helped create a golden era of Mexican film.

Moreno, born Aug. 12, 1911, and raised in a gritty part of Mexico City, got a start performing in tent theaters, or carpas, but had cracked the still-emerging film industry by the end of the 1930s. His breakthrough as Cantinflas came in 1940 with “Allí Está el Detalle,” or “There’s the Rub.”
Moreno had appeared in dozens of movies by the 1980s, mostly as the ragamuffin Cantinflas, his trademark pencil-thin mustache twitching like twin accent marks over the edges of the character’s fast-moving mouth. He won two Golden Globes, including one for his best-known role in an English-language film, “Around the World in 80 Days.” Charlie Chaplin once called him the world's greatest comedian.

Cantinflas became a hero to ordinary Mexicans, a wily underdog in sagging hobo’s clothes and battered shoes who relied on verbal gymnastics and puns to confound and puncture the rich and powerful. Some said he taught Latin American how to laugh at its politicians. Here’s a link to a great send-up of politicians (in Spanish).

His signature dodges and obfuscations even spawned a word: Cantinflear, which means to talk in circles without saying anything. (An example: “There’s the rub, that’s it’s not one thing or the other, but rather quite the contrary.”) Cantinfleos don’t always translate well, but for Mexicans they are masterful representations of the playful usage that peppers everyday Spanish in Mexico.

“He reflects a lot of the personality of the Mexican. When we see his films, we see a little of ourselves in him,” said Rogelio Martinez, a 36-year-old teacher who was taking in the outdoor photo exhibit this week. “We use the double entendre a lot in talking, and Cantinflas was the expert.”

Moreno died in 1993 and, though Mexico has produced a crop of very funny people since the heyday of Cantinflas, it may be many years before anyone can equal his comic influence on Mexico.

-- Ken Ellingwood in Mexico City

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