Love In The Time Of Cholera is an adaptation of Gabriel García Marquez’s 1985 novel. The book was translated rather faithfully by Edith Grossman, who took particular care to arrange each word so that Marquez’s inflections, cultural context, and end-of-sentence zingers remained intact. One only needs to consult the more disastrous Spanish-to-English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which suffered from more of a word-for-word interpretation, to realize Grossman’s superiority in the handling of Marquez’s literary works. However, screenwriter Ronald Harwood quickly negates much of Love In The Time Of Cholera’s depth and inner richness. In an ill-fated attempt to fit in too many events and sweeping views of the lush Colombian landscape, the film makes room only for the love story component of the film, plus or minus the occasional mention of sickness and war, which makes it a film that only the fawning members of Oprah’s motherfucking Book Club will probably adore.
Not much can be spoiled plotwise within a movie that gives away most of its ending in the opening scene of a movie. Fortunately, for the feeble-minded audience members, Love In The Time Of Cholera replays this scene near the film’s actual ending as well. In this scene, circa 1930, an aged Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), while attempting to quiet a pet bird, absurdly falls from a ladder to his death. His wife, Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), rushes to her husband’s side just in time to hear his last words: “Only God knows how much I loved you.” After the funeral, Fermina enters her home as a widow for the first time in over 50 years. She finds an elderly man standing in her living room with his hat over his heart. This man, Florentino Ariza (Javier Bardem of Goya’s Ghosts and No Country for Old Men), informs Fermina that he’s waited for this moment for 51 years, 9 months, and 4 days. This ill-timed declaration prompts Fermina to, quite rightly, toss Florentino out of her home in a furious rage. Then, the film’s director, Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), transports us back to the beginning of half a century of upheaval in Colombia that resulted in death on a massive level. “Cholera” carries a double meaning in the story, with “el colera” defined as the epidemic of a disease so deadly that it kills its victims within hours, and “la colera” defined as the choler or anger of warfare. These twin plagues serve as the backdrop for the story that revolves around a love triangle.
In the midst of all this death and destruction, the oblivious teenaged Florentino (Unax Ugalde) falls for rich girl Fermina Daza, and she does likewise. The two teenagers exchange love letters for years, and Fermina agrees to marry the young and hopeless romantic. However, when Femina’s father, Lorenzo Daza (John Leguizamo), hears of this development, he forbids his daughter to marry a mere telegraph boy. Lorenzo’s efforts to separate the two young lovers succeeds, and in their young adulthood, Fermina tells Florentino (now played by Javier Bardem) that their love was an illusion. Rejected by his love, Florentino runs to his mommy and cries like the little bitch that he is. Although Florentino’s desire for Fermina makes him physically ill, he continues to love her and is convinced that, in time, she will love him again.
Some indeterminable period of time later, Fermina falls ill with a suspected case of cholera, but according to the dashing Dr. Urbino, she just has a stomach bug. The aristocratic Urbino is smitten with the young woman, and they inexplicably marry. Although this development causes great pain to Florentino, he sees this only as another setback to the realization of his dream. The practical solution, Florentino thinks, is that he will simply wait for her husband to die. In the meantime, the poetic Florentino attempts to concentrate on his career, where even his commercial letters are written in romantic, rhymed format. Oh, and he also has lots of sex with many women. Although his first sexual encounter is by no effort of his own, he finds that getting laid helps him escape the pain of unrequited love. So, he sets about on a course that finds him having clandestine affairs with 622 women, most of whom are either widowed or married. However, even as a manwhore, Florentino imagines that he maintains a deeper fidelity to Fermina, and he continues his obsession with her, believing that they will eventually be together. While this is all supposed to be very romantic, I can only conclude that Florentino is what sane folk would characterize as a stalker.
Most readers of the novel will notice the marked differences in tone between the film and book. Gone are the subtle undercurrents of biting wit, and in their place is a campy humor that only the cigar and scenery-chomping Leguizamo appears to recognize. The rest of the actors portray their characters in a wholly serious manner, which in all fairness is probably what the screenplay tells them to do. In the case of Dr. Urbino, his character is entirely misdrawn. Instead of the restrained and dignified bore of a doctor found in the book, Benjamin Bratt appears as a smooth, charming man whose confidence lies not only in his medical profession but also in the bedroom. On his wedding night, Urbino tells an apprehensive Fermina that he will give her, “a lesson in love.” The line comes straight from the book, but it just sounds so fucking sleazy in the campy context of the film, though the added dose of humor does manage to keep the audience awake. This humor is contrasted with a cringeworthy tagline that asks, “How long would you wait for love?” The disharmonious blend of serious, campy, and melodramatic angst creates an unsettling mood resembling that of Univision’s long-running variety show, “Sábado Gigante.”
Love In The Time Of Cholera delivers, if nothing else, a spectacular display of how a $50 million dollar film can ignore screenwriting difficulties and spend far too many resources in the makeup department. Sadly, the filmmakers didn’t trust Bardem’s tremendous acting range enough to allow him to play the very young version of his character. As the young Florentino, Unax Ugalde wears a prosthetic nose in order to properly resemble Javier Bardem. As Florentino ages from young to older adult, he transforms from oddly handsome to eccentrically unattractive. Naturally, the filmmakers leave the physicality of Fermina largely intact. Through the power of cosmetics and hair coloring, Giovanna Mezzogiorno ages only a few decades instead of 50 years. As an added bonus, we even get to compare her youthful topless chest to what is presented to us as, presumably, her 72-year old boobs. On that note, despite over two hours of frequently graphic sexual romps, this film is anything but sensual or romantic. Unless you’re as desperate for love as Florentino Ariza, you’d be quite wise to skip this one.
Agent Bedhead (a.k.a. “Kimberly”) lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She can found attempting to erase these mental images over at agentbedhead.com.I Got All the Symptoms Count 'Em 1,2,3
Film | November 19, 2007 | Comments ()