There's "Love" in the title, but very little to be found elsewhere in this baffling, borderline slapstick romantic drama. It has the carriage of an uninhibited heartbreaker, but the storytelling here was meant to stay in the literary realm, where patience could be afforded to such an extravagant display of diseased, unpleasant characters.
Ever since Florentino (Javier Bardem) spied Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), he declared his everlasting love for her. Courting through love letters, the two grew quite fond of each other, pursuing their romance to the brink of marriage. When Fermina's father becomes enraged and eventually promises her to another man (Benjamin Bratt), Florentino sticks to his guns, vowing that he will never give up on their love. As the decades pass, Fermina finds her marriage to be less than appetizing, while Florentino bides his time with one-night-stands, waiting for his chance to return to Fermina's arms again.
If "Cholera" sounds romantic, perhaps it was in the acclaimed book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This is a lengthy narrative, stretching over 50 years and vast emotional mileage. I can definitely see the appeal of a shameless, widescreen adaptation, however the screenplay by Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist") and direction by Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire") is woefully misguided, underestimating the intimacy of the written word.
At first it's comforting to watch Newell dig in and strain to connect the story's rather extravagant character arcs: a soapy bit of direction, addressing not only the passage of time, but the fringes of obsession. The filmmaker is intending to write poetry with his film, both literally in Florentino's writing pursuits and thematically in his pledge to Fermina. Newell is searching for the joyful center of the story; a place where comedy and tragedy can exist together to form a devastating screen romance, sold on an epic scale.
That's all well and good, but I believe Newell and Harwood could've softened some of the book's more amorous intentions, starting with Florentino's voracious sexual appetite. It seems the only way the destroyed young man can possibly cope with his broken heart is to have as much sex as humanly possible with anything that stands in his way. Swooning yet? Take into account the total is over 600 random partners, which the character logs in his diary with a wet-lipped glee more suited to Gene Simmons. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.
Bardem's enthusiastic interpretation of Florentino is one of immediate innocence - a lovestruck guy who can't catch a break - but his horndog actions come off as unsightly in the film, rinsing away the kindness one expects from a love story, no matter how strange it's looking to become.
As a four-hankie, expansive period romance, "Cholera" is a miscarriage, powerless to rise above its own creepiness. Make no mistake, there are some terrific performances in the film, and the Columbian locations are to die for. But this is a story intended to engage the soul, and all it had me doing was reaching for the Purell.
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