Great literature is dumbed down to drippy soap opera in Mike Newell's adaptation of the Gabriel García Márquez novel, Love in the Time of Cholera. Set in Colombia between the 1870s and the 1930s, the story follows a born romantic named Florentino Ariza (played in teen years by Unax Ugalde and in adulthood by the great Javier Bardem) who never forgets his first love, Fermina (Italian actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno) even as he becomes the Latin Neil Strauss, bedding several hundred women and dutifully recording his conquests in a notebook. Having lost Fermina to the straight arrow Dr. Urbino (Benjamin Bratt) in his youth, Florentino vows the ultimate romantic gesture — he will quietly outlive his rival, however long that takes, and then renew his pursuit of Fermina.
To say Newell has no feel for Márquez 's voice would be a kind understatement. Instead of spilling the author's vaunted magical realism onto the screen the way, say, Guillermo del Toro might, or exploring the "rationalism vs. romanticism" battle represented by the leading men, the director seems taxed by the demands of simply filming the wide-ranging, ethereal book. Scene after dry, airless scene is ticked off in a workmanlike manner, and though we occasionally hear a Márquez zinger — "My heart has more rooms than a whorehouse" — we feel none of the weight of his cold, time-averse passions or recognize his obsessions, such as keeping the spirit vital as the body diminishes. Instead of wrestling these abstractions onto the screen, Newell simply boils Cholera down to a one-dimensional Romeo & Juliet knock-off, awash in passionate glances, pained outbursts and chest-beating Shakira ballads.
The damage caused by the director's inexplicable reliance on melodrama can't be overstated, as it turns multiple scenes into unintentional comedy sketches. Consider an early one, in which Dr. Urbino makes a house call on Fermina to assess fears that she may be infected with cholera. As Urbino enters the room, the camera locks on both of their gazes, after which Urbino strides across the room and aggressively yanks open Fermina's shirt, exposing her breasts before smushing his head into them in a faux-diagnostic gesture. Or consider the scene where Florentino and his mother both explode into tears over his inability to find love and they have a good, long cry while we, the audience, sink down in our seats in embarrassment.
There's no "on the other hand" coming, but if there was, it would revolve around Bardem, who at least tries for a relatable performance as the dogged dreamer who hopes in vain to recapture Fermina's affections, despite her being "cured" of her own romanticism by Dr. Urbino. As Cholera wears on, Florentino goes about making his living in a telegraph office, entangles himself in romantic dalliances with non-Ferminas and shoots the breeze with his uncle, played by Hector Elizondo, sporting some impressively bushy mutton chops. This twinkly eyed character, on hand to give advice to his lovelorn nephew, is a variance on the persona Elizondo has recreated continuously since 1990's Pretty Woman, but I suppose it works.
What doesn't work at all — saving the worst for last — is a ship-sinking performance by John Leguizamo as Lorenzo, the disapproving father of Fermina who scuttles her early courtship with Florentino. Putting aside the weird fact that Leguizamo and Mezzogiorno are more or less contemporaries in age, I've rarely seen an actor so jarringly out of step with his role. Leguizamo doesn't recite his dialogue so much as he spits it out in a weirdly affected, stuttering voice that has the feel of something improvised seconds before the camera rolled. Why did Newell allow this? Could the once-promising director of Donnie Brasco not be bothered to pull Leguizamo aside and ask him not to single-handedly derail his film? Love in the Time of Cholera isn't enough of a pitfall to slow down the Bardem juggernaut, but Newell should choose his next project more carefully.
Please visit SPLALit aStore
Latin American Literature