While seemingly impossible-to-film novels are being gracefully nurtured for the screen this season (“Atonement,” “The Kite Runner,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”), Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s much-adored “Love in the Time of Cholera” has been given a translation by helmer Mike Newell that’s both too literal and too thorough. Despite a magnificent performance by Javier Bardem, the film not only falls short of the novel’s magic, but fails to generate much of its own. Fans of the author, perhaps enlisted through the book’s enshrinement in Oprah’s Book Club, will be seduced. But serious filmgoers — “Love’s” target aud — will be neither seduced nor amused, making for an arduous B.O. trek on the upscale specialized circuit.
It’s the fault of neither Bardem nor screenwriter Ronald Harwood’s faithful, if necessarily condensed, adaptation that Newell’s movie can’t replicate the kind of spell Garcia Marquez wove into a novel that spans 53 years over the late 19th century and early 20th century. In telling the tale of Florentino Ariza (Bardem) and Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) — two Carthaginians who fall in love as teenagers but don’t reunite until they are “two old people about to be ambushed by death” — Garcia Marquez showed an avuncular tolerance for the romantic foibles and feckless caprice of his characters.
Florentino, after all, falls in love with Fermina and remains that way for his entire life. She, however, rejects him after an enforced separation, and it’s the most knowing scene in the film: She looks at his lovesick face and knows at once she doesn’t love him.
Florentino is devasted and embarks on a life of enforced loneliness, despite the hundreds of women he beds (and records in his trusty notebook). Fermina, meanwhile, marries Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), has children and is betrayed, all the while still loved by Florentino — who is there for her the moment she’s widowed. “I’ve remained a virgin for you,” he tells her on their inaugural night, and it’s a line guaranteed to get a laugh. For Garcia Marquez’s readers, however, the reaction was an ache and a pang for Florentino’s poignant realization of his lifelong solitude.
Pic shoehorns a story that requires nuance and a high tolerance for human ridiculousness into a far too conventional sensibility, and its characters are unavoidably diminished by their purposefully fractured English, rather than the eloquent Spanish their words and emotions require. Garcia Marquez’s characters may be children, but they aren’t childish; even in their most ludicrous moments, they maintain their dignity — something of which the picture deprives them by finding an overabundance of humor in oft-tragic circumstances.
That said, Bardem is a noble presence, and the film has been shot and scored with eloquent understatement by Affonso Beato and Antonio Pinto, respectively (a couple songs by pop songstress Shakira are included, for all those teenagers who won’t be flocking to the movie).
Portraying Florentino from young manhood to old age, Bardem is a chameleon. Impersonating an elderly man is one thing, and thanks are due to John E. Jackson’s makeup and prosthetics. But when the actor plays the younger Florentino — a man younger than Bardem himself, in other words — he makes the transformation largely through weight loss, a wide-eyed countenance and an air of guilelessness unknown to anyone over the age of 20. It’s not as if you can’t see through it, but it’s so honest, you don’t want to. The rest of the film might have benefited by example.
Around Florentino and Fermina gambol a herd of hams. John Leguizamo, as Fermina’s social-climbing father (who, of course, hates the working-class Florentino) seems to be channeling Don Corleone. Hector Elizondo, wearing what must be a pelt around his face, channels himself as Florentino’s uncle Leo. And Bratt, as Fermina’s philandering husband, simply lacks the gravity to bring his character to life.
There is also the problem of compression; the filmmakers want to touch all the bases, but in doing so, they have completed a blueprint rather than a building. Mezzogiorno is a haunting, gray-eyed beauty, and Florentino, in his worship, is a sympathetic hero. But the performances can’t compensate for the lack of meaningful connections in a movie that might have been great.
Production values are muy bueno.