Love in the Time of Cholera
Love in the Time of Cholera is based on the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez who, in 1982, was awarded the Nobel Prize for his luxuriant body of work. After viewing this film adaptation of one of his most beloved works, you will be faced with one of two conclusions: either the Nobel committee has lost all credibility, or Marquez made a appalling blunder in allowing his book to be refashioned for the screen.
Love in the Time of Cholera is about a young Colombian clerk named Florentino Ariza (played by Unax Ugalde as a teenager and Javier Bardem as an adult) who, while on a routine errand, catches site of the beautiful Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) through an open window. The course of his entire life is altered with just the single glance. Possessed of a poet’s heart, the poor Florentino woes the wealthy Fermina through letters and gradually she falls for him. But when her father, Lorenzo Daza (John Leguizamo), a trader whose finery cannot mask his gutter roots, discovers that the two young people intend to be married, he packs his daughter off for the Columbian interior where she vanishes from Florentino’s sight.
But Florentino is a man singularly possessed and time cannot dull his adoration. Tragically, Fermina returns to the city of Cartagena many years later, where she is married to the handsome Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), a physician who has made a name for himself battling a devastating outbreak of cholera. Distraught, Florentino throws himself into his work, eventually becoming a wealthy ship owner, and turns to promiscuity as a means to cure the ache in his heart. The Wilt Chamberlain of his time, he records each of his sexual encounters in a diary, detailing more than 600 entries before the film’s end. Although he is not physically faithful to Fermina, Florentino remains hers emotionally, biding his time — even if it be 51 years, nine months and four days — until he can be with her again.
Director Mike Newell and Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood’s Love in the Time of Cholera is a lush, handsome film that looks to have been shot entirely in a tropical botanical garden. It uses a horrific disease as a metaphor — like cholera, love is indiscriminate, consuming some and sparing others.
Unfortunately, the film’s polished veneer cannot mask its glaring failings. Listless, poorly scripted, badly acted and displaying an unforgivable misinterpretation of its source material, Love in the Time of Cholera is easily one of the worst adaptations of a great book ever mounted.
Spanish actor Bardem is terrific as the adult Florentino, though he plays the part with such shy awkwardness that we never buy that hundreds of women could have thrown themselves so enthusiastically into his bed. Italian Mezzogiorno casts spells with her haunting, hollow, watery eyes, and Bratt strides through the film with a surprisingly regal presence. But it is the woefully miscast John Leguizamo who truly stands out. There is a thin line between larger-than-life and caricature, but Leguizamo was so busy parodying exuberant Latin stereotypes that he unsuspectingly vaulted across it and never once looked back.
Leguizamo’s hammy performance is but one instance of inappropriate comedy in the film. Moments of unintended hilarity are bad enough; moments of deliberate yet thoroughly incongruous comedy are unforgivable, and Love in the Time of Cholera is stocked with them.
Love in the Time of Cholera spans more than half a century, making it necessary to age the actors, in some cases from teenagers to elderly matrons. This works better for some than others. While Bardem is aged impeccably, it is as if the filmmakers were afraid to show the ravages of time on Mezzogiorno’s face, fearful, perhaps, that we will not accept Florentino’s undiminished love for his Fermina if she succumbs to the natural progression of time. Instead Fermina remains virtually unchanged well into her 70s, while Florentino becomes stooped and hobbled.
As great as all these faults are, they pale in comparison and may, in fact, have been forgiven, had the script not overlooked its single most important objective — convince us that Florentino and Fermina ever possessed a love worth waiting a lifetime for. Not enough time is given to love’s first blush to persuade us of its later unwavering steadfastness. So many films such as this rush toward the bulk of the plot, forgetting that, if a believable, even seductive prelude is not established, the resolution is doomed before it begins.
I couldn’t help but think about Memoirs of a Geisha while watching this film. Geisha, like Cholera was based on an acclaimed novel of breathtakingly rich detail and subtle, understated nuance. Unfortunately, Geisha was directed with all the subtly of the Las Vegas strip. Similarly, Love in the Time of Cholera’s source material — a story of intimate, interior journeys — demanded restraint and delicacy but was instead translated for the screen with slapstick bombast and scene-chewing melodrama.