Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Great Diplomat: Cantinflas in SU EXCELENCIA (1967)

Recently I was invited to participate in a poll by naming my 50 favorite comedy films. After much procrastination I turned in my list within two days of the deadline -- the results will appear on the Wonders in the Dark blog later this year -- and almost instantly regretted it. I became conscious of all the comic cinema I have not seen. To be honest, I rarely seek out comedy in the theater; it's not that I lack a sense of humor, but I rarely see a movie with the sole goal of laughing. Still, my list was a sad thing, especially coming from someone who boasts of revealing a "wild world of cinema." I've never seen a Toto movie from Italy or a Tora-san film from Japan. Until this weekend, I'd never seen Cantinflas in his native language. Most Americans of a certain age have seen Mario Moreno in the 1956 Oscar winner Around the World in Eighty Days, the film that seemed to set him up to claim the mantle -- endorsed by no less than Charlie Chaplin -- of the world's greatest movie clown. Moreno, billed at home by both his real and stage names (i.e. "Mario Moreno, 'Cantinflas'") had been Mexico's leading movie comic since the late 1930s, but his next phase of world conquest, the 1960 Hollywood extravaganza Pepe, was a famous star-studded flop. Moreno retreated home, where his were the country's A pictures, compared to the B or below horrors or masked-wrestler films Americans usually imported. Defeated at the American box office, Moreno still saw himself (that is, Cantinflas) as a world-historical clown, and that megalomania is best illustrated in his 1967 political satire, directed by his regular collaborator Miguel Meliton Delgado from a story conceived by the star. Unlike his main rivals for global clowndom, Jacques Tati and Jerry Lewis, Moreno never directed himself and only occasionally wrote his own scripts. Nevertheless, it's reasonable to see him as the auteur of his films and Su Excelencia ("Your Excellency") as expressing his viewpoint on global affairs. In fact, the film seems designed exactly to let Cantinflas express his opinion of the Cold War world.

Cantinflas usually plays poor folk, though he also sometimes played policemen, but here he portrays Lopitos, a mid-level bureaucrat for the somewhere-in-Europe Cocos Republic, non-aligned neighbor to apparently socialist Pepeslavia. Cocos is one of the word's "candy" nations, the non-aligned bloc seeking a middle course between the colorados (the "Red Ones") or the verdes (the "Green Ones" or capitalist nations). The unstable republic is believed to hold a decisive vote among the non-aligned, one that could decide the fate of the world at an upcoming global conference -- apparently vested with extraordinary powers -- to be held in Pepeslavia. During the course of a whirlwind diplomatic dinner at the Pepeslavian embassy, the Cocos regime is toppled thrice over. The last coup puts Lopitos's godfather into power and the new ruler duly appoints Lopitos his minister plenipotentiary to Pepeslavia and his country's representative to the global conference.

Lopitos theoretically holds the fate of the world in his hands. Knowing this, he looks on bemusedly as both the colorados and the verdes try to influence him. He keeps them at bay with the sort of double talk that apparently defined Cantinflas as a comedian and added a word to the Spanish language. To this point, Lopitos has shown himself as no more than a somewhat lazy, somewhat crass mediocrity, the sort who'll embarrass himself while making a speech by letting mothballs spill from the pockets of his dinner jacket. He seems no more a man of ideas, ideals or ideology than Chaplin's barber in The Great Dictator -- and the comparison should tell the knowledgable what's coming. Everything has built up to the moment when Lopitos addresses the global conference, on Christmas Eve, after we've heard stereotypical speeches representing the colorados, the verdes, the Germans (by another name), etc. Clearly believing himself the Chaplin of his age (while the actual Chaplin was filming his cinematic swan song, A Countess from Hong Kong), Moreno dares ape the master by putting into Cantinflas's mouth a stupendous speech that actually makes the piously ranting Chaplin of Dictator sound like Buster Keaton. In content it's actually a sounder speech. Hewing to a non-aligned course, Lopitos makes a distinction between ideas and procedures, indicting both the verdes and the colorados for forcing their will on people, the colorados with brute force, the verdes with economic intimidation. Perhaps naively, the Cocos delegate insists on a live-and-let-live policy for the world, taking the possibility and necessity of peaceful coexistence for granted. Reportedly a political conservative despite his support for organized labor in the film industry -- but doesn't that also describe Ronald Reagan? -- Moreno saves his sharpest barbs for the "Red Ones," but as a Mexican he's hardly likely to take an uncritical view of the Colossus of the North, whose "Green" surrogates are denounced for a misplaced materialism that tries to sell cars to people who lack shoes. In any event, Lopitos refuses the opportunity to decide the world's future -- no one man should have that power no matter what the circumstances, he says -- by first announcing his refusal to break a tie vote and then making the matter moot by revealing that he'd already resigned before taking the podium. Wouldn't that give the Cocos government the power to appoint a delegate who would vote? Never mind, since the film wraps up not with Peace on Earth but with Lopitos selflessly giving a beggar his coat and getting the girl, a faithful secretary, after resisting the temptation of a Pepeslavian spy earlier in the picture.

If Chaplin had formed his impression of Cantinflas after seeing Around the World in 80 Days, it may not have been an accurate one. Su Excelencia, made when Moreno was 55, has very little in the way of slapstick -- the business with the mothballs is as broad as it gets. It conforms more to the impression I got from the Wikipedia entry for Cantinflas, of a primarily verbal rather than physical comedian and one thus unlikely to meet the French standard of authentic Frenchman Tati or honorary Frenchman Lewis. Still, Chaplin may have recognized Chaplinesque touches that are more obvious in Su Excelencia, little flourishes of a tramp's vanity in the way Lopitos almost dances with himself rather than with the seductress (though he manages to stick his hand between two patches of bare skin, mistaking her dress for his own pocket) and takes an odd little bow that's more like a curtsy before making his big speech. You can see faint glimmers of a physical comedian, but you can also see them being suppressed in an overlong talkfest that clocks in at 133 minutes. Because I can't really judge the wit of the dialogue from the subtitles, I can only fail to be impressed by the stock silly characters in the supporting cast (generals and admirals who play with toy armies and navies, an African diplomat who may or may not be joking about cannibalistic preferences) and the turgid pace of the film's first hour. While Delgado doesn't really prove himself an ace comedy director here, he does manage to capture a colorfully cosmopolitan moment in history when billions longed for an alternative to Cold War or cold victory. Strangely, the film becomes riveting to me in its final act just because I could not believe, even as the evidence piled up, that Cantinflas was gong to pull a Great Dictator and mean it. Some people accuse Sacha Baron Cohen of doing the same in this year's The Dictator, but from the reviews (I haven't seen it) it seems like Cohen at least made his speech in the form of jokes, while Moreno basically gives us a full Chaplin, an out-of-character editorial from the great artist to his public. If Wikipedia is to be believed, Su Excelencia marked a turning point for Moreno, who worked with lower budgets and less obvious ambition until retiring in the 1980s. The site doesn't say whether Excelencia flopped in Mexico, but flop or not, there's only so far you can go in that direction, and Moreno went as far as anyone could. It's as personally ambitious a film as Tati's Playtime, which was made at virtually the same time, but nowhere near as aesthetically ambitious, and that's the difference from a film that ranks high on my list and one that would not have made the list had I seen it in time. But now I want to see Cantinflas in his prime, because even in his vainglory Moreno shows himself a comic actor capable of much better, as history apparently proves.

1 comment:

Sam Juliano said...

Samuel, do not regret the list you turned in! You are way too modest. It certainly was one of the most eclectic and authoritative of any handed in. Like many I only know Cantinflas from AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS as well, but am exceedingly intrigued with the film you beautifully review here! I also had heard of Chaplin's reverence for him. You have certainly whet my appetite!