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TALENT: Sebastian del Amo on ‘Cantinflas’: ‘Showing What People Don’t Necessarily Know’

The Mexican filmmaker discusses his newest biopic “Cantinflas.”

Cantinflas,” the follow-up to Sebastián del Amo’s biopic “The Fantastic World of Juan Orol,” offers a portrait of Mexican comedic actor Mario Moreno, who made his Golden Globe-winning Hollywood debut as valet Passepartout in “Around the World in 80 Days.” But del Amo does more than just share the side of Cantinflas that audiences have grown to know and love – he delves into Moreno’s personal life and his struggles with fame, success and translating his signature wordplay humor from Spanish to English. Variety talked to Del Amo as his film world premiered at the Guadalajara film festival, where it vies for the Mezcal Prize, one of the fest’s two top honors.

What made you want to do a movie about Cantinflas?

In reality, the film was a great step in my career because it was like a charge or assignment. I was promoting my first movie, “The Fantastic World of Juan Orol,” and the producers offered me the project. They were looking for a director, and we started working together. It was a very interesting process of research. Just (going) from the script that Edui Tejerina wrote and investigating about the character. The big difference that we found comparing the two films is that, in the case of Cantinflas, he’s a very well known character, as opposed to Juan Orol who is a very dark and mysterious character and not well known, relatively. The challenge has been to try to introduce the characters, being careful that what we’re telling is well written, and I think we’ve achieved that.

We started to look for actors and we did some castings with some Mexican actors. It was during that process that Oscar (Jaenada) got in touch with us. He sent us some photographs of himself in character as Cantinflas and the resemblance was incredible, and so from there [we invited him to come] to do a casting. He came to Mexico and then did an extraordinary casting. That was the reason why we chose Oscar, and then we completed the crew with many of those who were part of my team for “The Fantastic World of Juan Orol.”

This movie seems to tell more about Cantinflas’ personal history and life.

Yes, that was kind of the idea. Of course, the character is still Cantinflas and he’s very well known, but the character of Mario Moreno not so much. The movie starts with the producer that was trying to go ahead with a project called “Around the World in 80 Days.” He tells his producers that he already has Mario Moreno, the Mexican actor…and they’re going to see who he really is. So in that process we start to tell the whole story of Mario Moreno from his beginnings in the carpas (Mexican tent shows), how he tries different jobs and finds he has a knack for improvisation. From this point, he starts to have success in the carpas and invents his character, Cantinflas, which catapults him to fame – he gets to the theater and he becomes an international character. From that point (in the movie) their destinies cross, they get together and end up filming “Around the World in 80 Days,” which wins five Oscars.

What type of audience are you targeting with this film?

Without a doubt, it’s clear that one important audience is the nostalgic public, the ones who lived and grew up with these movies. We have the advantage that, again, unlike Juan Orol, Cantinflas’ movies are still watched, they’re still shown. People keep looking for them. Of course, it’s about how to introduce this complex character who is, without a doubt, the most internationally successful Mexican actor, to new generations.

And Cantinflas is known all over the world, not just in Spanish-speaking countries.

Exactly…The idea, of course, is to do a just homage to a character with whom generations of people in all of Latin America have grown up and, on the other hand, present him to new generations and to the people who didn’t necessarily know this character.

Do you have plans to distribute the film in the U.S.?

Yes. In the United States the distributor is going to be Pantelion. If I’m not mistaken, it’s going to be released over Labor Day weekend. We’re trying to bring the film to some festivals in the U.S., to the Los Angeles Festival. We’re looking for doors. In the end, the idea is to have an important release in the U.S.

Have you felt inspired by successful films which have delivered portrayals of successful – if sometimes troubled – French icons such as “La vie en rose,” about Edith Piaff, or, very recently, “Yves Saint Laurent”?

Well, curiously, they’ve called me the biographical filmmaker in Mexico. I’ve done two biographical films, though the two are different, and without a doubt…it impassions me to research historical topics and I’ve been influenced by many biographical films. I do feel it’s important for filmmakers in some ways to recuperate these marvelous histories of the 20th century and past centuries…I have many personal projects that, without being biographical projects, do have historical details.

Do you have a particular interest in Mexican film figures?

Well, without proposing it to myself, both of my movies are about iconic characters in Mexican cinema…I think that the element of film, all the people who were in the cinema of the era, the 40s and 50s, like in the U.S., it’s an element that I like a lot. It’s also tied to the Mexican culture in a way, just like the glamour of Hollywood. (People like) Dolores del Río, Emilio Fernández. It’s even part of our personal history.

Do you find Cantinflas’ situation in Hollywood to be compellingly ironic? He became one of the highest-paid figures, in part for playing “lesser” roles.

I think the biggest problem that Mario had with really getting into Hollywood was a question of language – a cultural question really. The main part of Mario’s comedy was the circles he drew around language. Translating that into English wasn’t as easy for him and wasn’t as natural. In reality he had only two attempts (in Hollywood). We focused on one – “Around the World in 80 Days” – and in a way he does play the role of the companion, but if you analyze the film, in reality all the weight of the film falls on Mario’s comedy. Then the second attempt he had was “Pepe,” which was very poorly received by the press. He himself recognized that it was an error in his career. From that point, he returned to Mexico and remained in Mexico making movies as Cantinflas. He made about three more movies.  That was the difficulty he had – language…But I think one of the things Cantinflas did right was having an absolutely Mexican comedy that helped him cross borders and that was well received not only in Latin America but in other countries, with other languages and other cultures.

Why did you want to focus on Cantinflas’ personal life?

Cantinflas is a very recognized character, and his movies are still very present in people’s daily lives. In various parts of Latin America, week after week they show Cantinflas movies and people watch them. They keep watching them, they keep repeating lines from his different movies that have become iconic. What seemed interesting to us from the beginning was that – showing what people don’t necessarily know. How he got his start, how he discovered his facility for improvisation, the legend of how Cantinflas got his name. Then, when he starts to became a super famous character, to also show the problems Mario Moreno had with living with that fame…These are very interesting things about the character that give an added value to the character we already know.

How do you feel about the end result that you’ve created?

I’m very happy. I’m very proud of the result. The controversy that occurred, I understand in a natural way, but it surprised me, because there was so much controversy surrounding Oscar’s nationality. All I can say is that his performance is going to surprise (audiences). He’s done an incredible job and is accompanied by the technical level of the film – the photography, the characterization, the costumes, the score, which is super emotive. It’s a very complete movie and all that’s left is to wait for the people to accept and value it.

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