Before the book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez landed on Oprah’s book club list this fall, Love In the Time of Cholera had topped literature majors and hopeless romantics’ favorite book lists for years. And in an age when He’s Just Not That Into You and eHarmony.com personality profiles determine love lives more than romantic courtships, it’s not surprising that the book is still an endearing read to so many.
Though, despite the massive success of the novel and Oprah’s endorsement, the marketing campaign to alert audiences of the film adaptation that released in November seemed to fall flat early on. Sadly, the film falls flat too. It seems that the studio may have guessed that the film could never be the tour de force that the book has been and they curbed the ad budget accordingly.
With laser beam precision, the film Love in the Time of Cholera focuses in on the love triangle that is the heart of the novel, though it fails to recognize the many other stories and sub-plots that make the books so fascinating. Although the novel examines all that happens in a fictitious Spanish-speaking town on the Caribbean coast from 1880 through 1930, and covers its residents' lives through wars, colonization, modernization, and a deadly plague of cholera, the film focuses squarely on the soap opera romantic element of the book's romantic triangle.
Here’s how the story goes: an elderly Florentino Azira goes to see Fermina Urbino, his first and only true love, at her house on the day that she buries her husband, to let her know he has been waiting 51 years for this moment, to be with her. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that true enough, 51 years earlier Florentino (played by Javier Bardem) had swept Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) off her feet when they were teenagers with many a love letter and violin serenade. But because Florentino was too poor, Fermina’s father forbade her to marry him. Instead, he forced her to marry Dr. Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), the wealthy town doctor. Though Fermina resisted Dr. Ubino at first, she grew to love him and eventually completely forgot about Florentino, while Florentino continued to devote his entire life to loving Fermina. The only escape he could find from the pain of his broken heart was to have sex with a lonely woman. Florentino catalogs these affairs over the years and makes it to 622 conquests before Fermina’s husband finally bites the dust.
That’s right, Florentino slept with 622 women in 51 years which, would means he averaged over one new woman a month even into his twilight years, all while living in the same small coastal Caribbean town. Right. This is one of the few hilarious, surrealistic, and nearly impossible details that made its way from the book to the movie. I was hoping to see so much more of Marquez’s poetic language translated onto the big screen, but I didn’t.
Perhaps it’s because the director for this adaptation was Brit Mike Newell that the film looks and feels like a repressed Merchant Ivory film, complete with stale, predictable period piece set-ups and cast in pale, sepia-toned colors. Though, the kind of magical realism that Marquez dished up in the novel has made its way on to the big screen before -- in such visually rich adaptations of other stories of Spanish origin Like Water for Chocolate and The House of the Spirits -- there is no metaphorical magic at work in the Cholera film.
While Bardem’s performance as Florentino creates a powerful portrait of lovesickness -- his eyes do a gentle, sweet dance whenever he sees Fermina – he seems a bit of a clunky choice for the casting. Or, it could be that I couldn’t shake visions of him as the very unromantic Chigur, the relentless mass murdering hit man who willy-nilly slit throats for fun, in the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, which I saw just two weeks ago. I predict we will see Giovanna Mezzogiorno, an Italian actress, more at the movies as she held her own alongside Bardem. Benjamin Bratt, as Fermina’s doctor-husband, was pretty, though boring as usual. John Leguizamo, playing Fermina’s hot-blooded father, brought his irreverent firecracker energy to this “serious” role and did it quite well.
It would be best to wait for Love in the Time of Cholera to come out on DVD, so you can sit with a box of Kleenex and cry your eyes out over Florentino’s 51 years of heartbreak in the privacy of your own home, cause getting a good cry out of the melodrama is about all you’ll get out of the movie. This didn't need to be a stereotypical "chick flick," but it certainly turned out that way.