Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Little Priest

(El Padrecito, Mexico, 1964)

The only previous time I’ve seen Cantinflas (real name: Mario Alfonso Moreno Reyes) in a movie was in Around the World in 80 Days, his first English-language film, for which he won a Golden Globe Award. He only made two more in English: Pepe, a giant musical which flopped, and The Great Sex War, which is forgotten (and with good reason, I hear). I thought he was delightful in ATWI80D. (Trivia: The director of that giant, Best Picture of 1957 extravaganza, was Michael Anderson, who also helmed—as we say in Tinseltown—my own giant flop, Millennium. Michael is a very sweet man who had a lot of funny stories to tell about the madman who produced ATWI80D, Michael Todd. I wish I could remember more of them.) All Cantinflas’s other films, like this one, are in Spanish. I’ve been curious about him for some time. Chaplin called him “the greatest comedian in the world,” and the world echoed the compliment by calling him “the Mexican Chaplin.” He may still be the most admired film actor in his native Mexico, even with the recent onslaught of big-name Mexican and Mexican-American stars. So what was the deal with him? I resisted both Chaplin himself and Jacque Tati, the French Chaplin, until I actually saw some of their movies, and then I adored them both. I was hoping the same thing would happen with Cantinflas.

It didn’t. Sad to say, it didn’t. We paused this film halfway through, agreed that neither of us had laughed at all, and beyond that, the story was dull and totally predictable and dismally-produced, and then gave it up.

This upset me, and I tried to find out why. It turned out to be not all that hard to discover the reason he and I didn’t connect. It’s been suggested that a better American performer to compare him with would be Groucho Marx, with his insane verbal humor. Chaplin was a world-wide idol because his success came during the silent era, when no knowledge of English was needed; the title cards served largely to move the plot along, and didn’t have to be very funny. (A good thing, because most of them were pretty lame.) His humor was not necessarily slapstick—though he was second only to Buster Keaton at that—but it was always visual. You didn’t need any sounds, any words, at all.

Cantinflas used verbal humor almost exclusively. To quote from the Wiki article:

“Among the things that endeared him to his public was his comic use of language in his films; his characters (all of which were really variations of the main “Cantinflas” persona but cast in different social roles and circumstances) would strike up a normal conversation and then complicate it to the point where no one understood what they were talking about. The Cantinflas character was particularly adept at obfuscating the conversation when he owed somebody money, was courting an attractive young woman, or was trying to talk his way out of trouble with authorities, whom he managed to humiliate without their even being able to tell.”

Doesn’t this sound more like Groucho to you? All through the first part of El Padrecito there were these long stretches of monologue from Cantinflas, and then the person he was talking to would say “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Whew! Neither did I, but I was glad to hear the other guy say it. The sad fact is, satire, puns, wordplay, poetry … all these things can be translated from one language to another only by a genius. What comes to mind is Cyrano de Bergerac, an 1897 play in French by Edmond Rostand that is dense in wordplay. It was translated wonderfully into English by Brian Hooker. I will never know just how wonderfully because I don’t know French, but what I do know is that it worked, it was simply crammed with puns and jokes and such, in English. This is the version José Ferrer won the Oscar for in 1950. (Steve Martin did a less successful adaptation as Roxanne in 1987.) And this movie simply doesn’t work, and the reason is that the subtitles can’t convey the (I’ll postulate) richness of the Spanish verbal by-play.

Usually when I watch a film in a foreign language I pretty much tune out the dialogue, except for listening for emotional nuances. I just read the titles. What good is it going to do me to listen to Chinese, or Czech, or Polish? I don’t know a word, a syllable, in those languages. But in French and Spanish I listen, because I do know a few words. I’ll see an English word in the titles, and then listen for the Spanish equivalent, and often can hear it. Pretty primitive, and I doubt I’ll ever learn Spanish that way, as I’m led to believe some children learn to speak English. But I was actually listening, and from time to time I’d detect something, as in one passage when I realized that the end word of each sentence Cantinflas was saying rhymed with the end of the previous sentence. I then figured out that some pretty cute punning must be going on here, because there were a dozen lines like that. And at the end of the long, rambling speech the priest Cantinflas was talking to looked puzzled, and admitted he hadn’t understood a word of it. Neither had I, but the tragedy was that the translator, though he may have understood it all, was incapable of making similar puns in English. I got gibberish, as did the priest, but for it to work it had to be funny gibberish, and this wasn’t funny. And sadly, a time or two I got proof that the translator was actually trying, as when there would be a pun in English, and I found myself wondering, do those two words constitute a pun in Spanish? I doubt it, which means the translator had done some fancy footwork to find an alternate way of getting the joke across.

Perhaps some English-speakers will be able to find Cantinflas funny—though his humor never really crossed the Rio Grande, except among Mexican-Americans—but I am unable to. And it’s really sad, because he is the little Mexican everyman underdog who defeats the establishment, and I want to like him.