Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Columbian Gabriel García Márquez' expansive novel 100 Years of Solitude has always considered unsuitable for film adaptation, and has remained untouched by the movies. Márquez resisted a movie adaptation of his 1985 novel Love in the Time of Cholera for over twenty years. Although not a story of 'magical realism', Cholera's main asset is its verbal poetry. The plotline is literal enough, but still difficult to portray on film. How does one dramatize a romance that remains unrequited for fifty years, with the lovers aging from teenagers to senior citizens?
Mike Newell's film version has (so far) gone down as one of the big disappointments of 2007. The movie succeeds in a number of ways -- it looks fabulous -- but stumbles in others just enough to discourage many from accepting its particular fantasy. Lovers of the book may be just as displeased, as rich characters and episodes are given short shrift. The only unanimous praise earned by the film was for several songs written and performed by Colombian singer Shakira.
I found the movie intermittently frustrating but definitely worthwhile, and enjoyed its unusual lovers Florentino Ariza and Fermina Urbino.
Clerk messenger Florentino Ariza (Unax Ugalde, later Javier Bardem) gets one glimpse of wealthy Fermina Urbino (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and falls hopelessly in love. A sympathetic aunt abets their secret until Fermina's mule trader father Lorenzo Daza (John Leguizamo) puts an end to their communications. Fermina then catches the eye of urbane Dr. Juvenal Urbino. Florentino watches helplessly as the love of his life marries another. He passes the years following Fermina's life from afar, channeling his energies into an endless series of sexual conquests. But his heart remains dedicated to his first love, through decades of war, sickness and a changing world.
Love in the Time of Cholera may go down in history as that 'other' movie Javier Bardem made the same year he did No Country for Old Men. The much anticipated film looked great, but initial critics slammed it as an upscale, unfocused episode of Masterpiece Theater and audiences stayed away. Various reviewers found it silly, with inconsistent characters saying unconvincing dialogue in bad makeup. The problem has nothing to do with the acting (which is always interesting) or the production, which expresses quite well the exotic, long-ago setting. Márquez's turn of the century Venezuela is a remote, backward land with its own special meaning, a past largely unknown to newer generations, even South Americans.
The filmmakers' fatal mistake was to angle for the big audience by filming in English. As soon as the interesting cast starts speaking English, Love in the Time of Cholera becomes just another Anglo-Hollywood movie. The story is infused with a poetic mad love theme that needs the romance of its original language -- the language is part of the overall appeal. Poetic lines that have power in Spanish sound stilted when recited in English: "Shoot me. There is no greater glory than to die for love." That kind of poetic flight of spirit disappeared from English-language novels around World War I.
The richly textured tale isn't likely to appeal to audiences who expect immediate gratification in their romances, with lovers that pop into bed on whatever pretext is convenient. They're initially kept apart by the girl's father, an unimpressive man that doesn't seem all that much of an obstacle --- because we haven't been properly prepared to accept the ground rules of this 1890 Latin American culture. Javier Bardem's Florentino is an intensely emotional, literate man (when he gets bored he writes shipping invoices in rhyme) who must spend the better part of a lifetime yearning for a lost ideal. The character in the book, if I remember correctly, was more pathetic-looking, almost an Ichabod Crane type. The theme is the value of love, even though what Florentino does seems more like an obsession. Tránsito Ariza (Fernanda Montenegro) does her best to help her son get over Fermina's marriage, but nothing seems to work. Even though he knows that Fermina is living a life separate from his passions, having babies with her rich, respectable husband, Florentino never gives up. He bides his time in the hope that he'll outlive Dr. Urbino.
The movie is unusual but not unique. It's most closely related to surreal 'love out of time' tales like Portrait of Jennie and Somewhere in Time. The closest correlative is 1934's Peter Ibbetson, a wild tale of lovers separated for a lifetime. Through telepathic communication (or madness) they find paradise together -- life is but a dream. But Love in the Time of Cholera isn't a fantasy, at least not that kind. Florentino conquers time and disappointment by sheer will and the purity of his love -- but he does it in the real world.
Unfortunately, although screenwriter Harwood has done a good job with the book's themes and timeline, he and director Newell haven't found a cinematic equivalent for the book's logic-defying romantic intensity. We're left with contradictory characters, especially Florentino Ariza. Rather than being celibate, the despondent lover uses his romantic powers of persuasion too woo and bed a long line of women. By the time he's a middle-aged man, Florentino's conquests approach six hundred -- which in the book seem a blur of unimportant details. Through all of this carnal pleasure, Florentino remains pure in spirit and true to his Fermina. In the film, where what characters do IS what they are, it looks like Florentino simply has himself a party waiting out the decades. His final 'trivial' conquest in the movie is a young woman. In the book, she's a fifteen year-old girl partially entrusted to his care, and her terrible fate is one for which we'd normally hold Florentino responsible. Love in the Time of Cholera has the sense to drop that detail, but it makes little difference. After a lifetime of recreational sex, it's hard to see Florentino as a martyr to love. He's doesn't seem to have all that much in common with Peter Ibbetson, who spends his life chained to a cot with his back broken!
The adaptation presents only the bare bones of what in the book are rich episodes. Florentino moonlights in the poor quarters writing letters for the illiterate, putting his boundless talent for love-prose to work. In the movie this naturally boils down to Florentino helping a single peasant win the girl of his heart, a sweet but not particularly profound aside. Florentino spends his 50 years rather aimlessly. His mother Tránsito suffers along with him, and then becomes senile. Florentino starts working for Don Leo (Hector Elizondo), eventually taking over the old man's company. He never gives up the notion that Fermina will one day be his, and the world restored to its proper order. This will communicate as a grand theme to some, but for others the movie may seem like the slow-motion actions of a stalker, spread out over 50 years.
Italian actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno makes a great Fermina ... she's beautiful, but not intimidating. She follows a sensible route through her life and is never intentionally cruel to Florentino, even when propriety dictates that she ignore him in public. Their secret love exchanging letters at the beginning is encouraged by a rebellious aunt who is supposed to be acting as a chaperone, so Fermina's falling in love with the young Florentino is not entirely her own choice. With arranged marriages still the norm, the aunt's urges Fermina to seize what happiness she can, while she can. Fermina makes the eventual choice to favor Doctor Urbino. He's handsome and gentle but a proud man who at heart considers Fermina a special possession. She gives him children and stays faithful to him in spirit until he has an affair late in their marriage.
Those who love the book should find the last chapter of the story to be the best. We want to find out if all good things do indeed come to those who wait. It's too good to spoil here, except to say that it goes against filmic conventions. There are no loud dramatic scenes, just the introduction of an entirely new kind of peace.
Love in the Time of Cholera is a worthy effort. It's by no means insufferable or a bore, and doesn't deserve the scorn it has attracted. The full equation isn't all there: the viewer has to provide part of the romantic magic, and that's not a good sign. But stories as unusual as this are rare these days, and ones about love in old age are even scarcer.
New Line's disc of Love in the Time of Cholera is a beautiful enhanced transfer, with glowing colors. The extras begin with a feature commentary by director Newell, who previously did a Harry Potter installment and has a long career behind him (The Good Father, Mona Lisa Smile). A long making-of docu presents Newell, his main actors and producers talking about the movie. They're defensive about their choices, emphasizing the near-perfect locations (in Columbia, not far from Venezuela) over the choice to homogenize the book with English language and an international cast. Liev Schreiber talks about working in the tropical heat but is grateful that he did not need to wear the elaborate prosthetic makeup used to make Unax Ugalde and Javier Bardem resemble one another. We don't get much time with cast members like Fernanda Montenegro, a great Brazilian actress who was nominated for an Oscar for 1998's Central Station. Instead, we hear all about the expensive restoration of an authentic steamboat for use in the final scenes.
A trailer is included. Editor Mick Audsley comments on a battery of deleted scenes, a couple of which look to have been very expensive to film. This must have been an exceedingly difficult movie to put together. It's handsome, ambitious and fairly unique. I wouldn't be surprised if it finds more of its intended audience on DVD.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Love in the Time of Cholera rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: director commentary, docu The Making of ..., deleted scenes with editor commentary, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 13, 2008
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson
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