Love in the Time of Cholera
Director: Mike Newell
Starring: Javier Bardem, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Benjamin Bratt
As a novel, Love in the Time of Cholera is a beloved work that has inspired and delighted untold multitudes and will continue to stand the test of time as a great work of art.
As a movie, not so much. With an uneven tone and little thematic thrust, it’s like someone threw the Lifetime TV network into a blender, along with a lot of crappy aging makeup. The protagonist cries a lot, and sleeps with random women the rest of the time. Although not one character in the film actually gets cholera, there is a lot of vomiting.
Mike Newell‘s adaptation, cutting the 432 pages (in English translation) of artful prose into 2 hours and 19 minutes of lackluster period drama, draped against a subdued but engrossing depiction of Cartagena, Columbia, between 1879 and 1930.
Stripped of Gabriel Garcia MÃ¡rquez’ intricate writing, the basic plot is rendered thus: Old man falls out of a tree and dies. Second old man shows up right after the funeral and humbly (re-)declares his eternal and undying love for the first old guy’s widow. She yells at him like he killed her husband himself. Flashback fifty years and we see the old lover as a young man, falling for the girl. A whirlwind epistolary romance dies a sudden death, girl marries a dashing doctor, has a marginally okay life, as the jilted lover pines for the girl in his heart, while keeping a diary about the other 622 he sleeps with in the 50-odd years it takes the good doctor to die so he can take another shot at his One True Love.
Yes, 622. As dopey lookin’ a guy as Javier Bardem. One of the failings of the film is it never seems plausible that this stoop-shouldered sad sack is managing to record this much recreational romping. At one point, he explains that being empty and harmless is his secret seduction technique, but as I told my companion at the screening, “Tried that. Doesn’t work.”
Yet while lovesick Florentino Ariza creates that distracting metatextual mystery, it’s the object of his affection, Fermina (played by Giovanna Mezzogiorno) who proves the film’s central failure. We’re meant to find some sympathy with Florentino’s half-century of pining for this woman, but from the moment we meet Fermina, she is as plain and unremarkable as an unbuttered slice of toast. It’s great that the filmmakers didn’t cast some improbably modern Hollywood beauty in the role, but if neither Mezzogiorno nor the screenplay can give us any hint of beauty, charm or magic in the character, if we can’t see why Florentino wants a first date, much less remains besotted for 50 years, well, the whole film starts to fall apart.
That’s not the only bad casting. The usually likable John Leguizamo is completely miscast as young Fermina’s father (unless her father was meant to be from Brooklyn), and Hector Elizando isn’t shining as Florentino’s rich uncle, though maybe he just couldn’t act his way through those horrible period sideburns he’s sporting.
Not that good casting would’ve helped. Early on, a few years (at most) pass and Mezzogiorno stays the same, while the teenage version of Florentino is replaced by the obviously 40-something Bardem. No wonder she dumps him.
During the 50 years (and two hours of screen time) that the lovers are apart, things happen. Sometimes the things are farcical, almost vaudevillian, especially the sex. Sometimes they’re soap-opera melodrama. Sometimes they’re quiet moments of serious drama. None of it meshes together.
So a lifetime later, the sad sack satyr and the expressionless object of his admiration meet again as old people, and the chance to start anew lays before them. Not a thing we’ve been shown of the intervening five decades seems to bear upon their acquaintance in their golden years. Neither I nor the characters learned a damned thing about life, love or ourselves. Readers debate whether Marquez’ novel was a sentimental ode to the enduring power of love, or a more complex examination of culture, idealism and expectations. With the tag line “How long would you wait for love?” and a poster image of a nude woman’s back, her hips draped in vivid red, it seems the film is aiming for the former. This overlong film neither sells us the wonder of undying love nor truly examines the hearts of its bland, unsmiling leading lady and single-minded, but seriously slutty, protagonist.