You know something’s wrong when the audience erupts in laughter during one of the most passionate moments of “the greatest love story ever told.” Sadly, Mike Newell’s adaptation of the classic novel Love in the Time of Cholera, is rife with unintentional comedy, due mostly to the filmmaker’s rigid attempt to be as faithful to the book as possible, at the expense of believable dialogue and developed characters. Despite some strong performances, the film whose tagline is “how long would you wait for love” loses its magic in translation, and will leave you waiting for the romance long after the credits roll.
The film begins in nineteenth century Colombia, where young telegraph clerk Florentino Ariza (Javier Bardem) seals his fate when he first sets eyes on the beautiful Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) while delivering a message to her shady father Lorenzo (John Leguizamo). Consumed by his passion, Florentino does everything in his power to woo Fermina, who quickly falls for his amorous love letters and violin serenades. However when Lorenzo discovers the couple’s intentions, he drags Fermina to the country to purge her of her affections. Though Fermina insists her love can withstand the test of time, when she finally returns home, she callously rejects Florentino claiming that their love was just an illusion.
As Florentino wallows in agony, Fermina is courted by the noble Doctor Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), who wins her hand and eventually her heart. Florentino, on the other hand, isn’t so wavering in his affections. He spends the next fifty years sleeping with over six hundred women to drive Fermina from his mind, while waiting for her husband to die so he may once more proclaim his unyielding love.
Translating a classic novel to the screen is always a challenge, but when you’re adapting a book with very few lines of dialogue and a plot driven mostly by character’s lamentations, it’s an almost impossible task. Not to mention that the story spans over fifty years, six hundred women and endless political and emotional turmoil. The producers of Love in the Time of Cholera supposedly had to beg Gabriel Garcia Marquez for the rights to the novel, promising to remain completely faithful to the original story. Thus, instead of generating a coherent script around the heart of the book, the filmmakers tried to squeeze in as many tidbits from the novel as possible, winding up with a jumble of scenes and characters that never really engage the audience. The writers even ripped the dialogue word for word, forgetting that comments that seem romantic on the page like “this is going to be a lesson in love,” come off horribly cheesy on screen (especially when Benjamin Bratt is saying them.)
As a result, Newell’s talent for developing characters through angst and witty banter is completely wasted here. Florentino comes off more as a pathetic stalker whose amorous success is unbelievable and disturbing (especially when he conquers a sixteen-year-old girl at the ripe old age of seventy-two.) Meanwhile, Marquez’ biting satire of Fermina and Urbino’s relationship is completely underplayed, making it hard to buy into the romantic plotline. As the film painfully drags along, it becomes more and more surprising that the story came from a Nobel Prize winning author.
Despite the film’s flaws it would be hard to find fault with Bardem’s performance, the only disappointment here is that he feels wasted among the plodding script. Mezzogiorno does well, but she is almost too icy as Fermina having absolutely no chemistry with any of her male suitors. The supporting cast does well despite a few forced accents, save John Leguizamo who (surprise, surprise) overplays his role to a campy level. The most outstanding performance, however, comes from the make-up team who aged the characters so realistically that Javier Bardem and Giovanna Mezzogiorno might be a little freaked out by their future selves.
Ultimately, Cholera is best suited for fans of the novel who want a CliffsNotes-like refresher on the book’s events. But like CliffsNotes, the basics are there, but when it comes to the heart and soul of the novel (the parts that always turn up in those essay questions), something is missing.