Since Gabriel Garcia Marquez first published “Love in the Time of Cholera” internationally in 1988, he is said to have declined, much like a character in one of his books, something on the order of 50 offers to turn the novel into a film. Part of his reluctance to fork over the story to Hollywood apparently stemmed from his misgivings about subjecting one the greatest Spanish-language novels of the 20th century to an English-language adaptation. And after seeing what director Mike Newell and screenwriter Ronald Harwood have done to it, it’s pretty clear that his fears were well-founded.
Producer Scott Steindorff has said in interviews that he won Garcia Marquez over by likening himself to Florentino Ariza, the obsessive suitor who falls in love with a woman he hardly knows and recommits himself to her even more fervently (soul, if not body) after she marries somebody else. The author must have found this either very persuasive or very funny. If Garcia Marquez’s sly, swooning philosophical masterpiece is any indication, he doesn’t just know how to fan poetic ardor, he knows how to mock it at the same time. That, after all these years of playing hard-to-get, the novel has made it to the screen in the form of a plodding, tone-deaf, overripe, overheated Oscar-baiting telenovela smacks of just the kind of deliciously ironic prank an 80-year-old Colombian Nobel laureate could really get behind.
“Love in the Time of Cholera” is an epic love story set mostly in an unnamed colonial Colombian port town. It concerns Ariza (Unax Ugalde and later Javier Bardem), a young telegraph clerk, the illegitimate son of a secret pawnbroker to society ladies in decline and the head of a shipping company, who falls in love at first sight with Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Fermina’s father, Lorenzo (John Leguizamo), new in town and frustrated in his attempts to enter society, opposes the marriage, but Fermina lets herself be swept up in their epistolary romance. Lorenzo sends Fermina away to her cousin Hildebranda’s (Catalina Sandino Moreno) house in the country, and Florentino waits for years. But upon her return she realizes suddenly that her feelings for him were just an illusion, and marries Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), the most eligible bachelor in town. Florentino pledges his eternal devotion and fidelity, and then goes on to have 622 affairs, flings and one-night stands, inadvertently causing the occasional murder-by-jealous-husband.
The story travels from the city into the jungle and across the ocean to Europe, spans more than 50 years from the end of the 19th century through the beginning of the 20th, and meticulously recreates historical detail, every political circumstance, every social strata. Garcia Marquez creates a singularly specific world, shaped by far-flung forces and buffed by local quirks. Newell and Harwood take all this and tosses it into a stew of pan-Latin generalizations, missing the tone of the book completely. They downplay class conflicts and ignore historical context, heat up the melodrama, tone down the humor and irrevocably tip the whole thing into culture-bending camp. They don’t so much as allude to the causes of the civil war that rages in the post-Colonial era (the word for cholera in Spanish is the same as the word for rage).
The pan-Latin cast includes a mix of Latino Americans (Leguizamo, Hector Elizondo, Bratt), Latin Americans (Colombian Sandino Moreno and Brazilian Fernanda Montenegro), a Spaniard (Bardem) and an Italian (Mezzogiorno) all of whom are called upon to speak in Spanish-accented English. This has the unfortunate effect of catapulting Garcia Marquez’s dry, deadpan humor into florid kitsch. You can’t be wry and aloof and sound like Ricardo Montalban at the same time.
The gifted Bardem is dopey as the lovesick Florentino Daza (played by Ugalde in early scenes). He keeps his great, taurine head ducked and his back inverted like a parenthesis. But at least he displays flashes of humor that show he understands that while we’re supposed to admire Florentino for his doomed dedication to his love-at-first-sight fantasy, a dedication that produces in him symptoms very similar to cholera at several points during the movie, we’re also supposed to find him ridiculous.
No such grasp of the character on the part of Bratt. Urbino is intended to be the opposite of the lovesick, socially obscure poet-dreamer. He’s a pragmatist, a scientist, a civic leader, something of a cold fish, but Bratt plays him like a suave, hand-kissing smoothie. In the book, Urbino marries Fermina without loving her, confident that they will create love over time, convinced that in marriage stability is more important than happiness and aware of the fact that his choice will be socially controversial. In the film, when, on their wedding night, he counters her remark that she doesn’t want a medical lesson with a velvety “this is going to be a lesson in love,” it sounds nothing like it does in the scene in the book, despite the near-exact line.
In interviews, Steindorff has said that he was assured Newell was the right man for the material when the director quipped that he was accustomed to “traveling to strange places [like] Los Angeles.” Which is cute, but pretty much accounts for the rampant exoticization of the material. The city that Garcia Marquez details inside and out, past and present seems strange, inscrutable and thoroughly alien through Newell’s eye. Leguizamo is painful to watch as Fermina’s social-climbing father -- he can take the Colombian out of Queens but he can’t seem to take Queens, even in the late 1800s, out of the Colombian. Mezzogiorno is a bit of a cipher as the furious Fermina, who created her life from a series of obstinate refusals to conform to expectations. Sandino Moreno, as Fermina’s flirtatious cousin, is the brightest spot in the cast.
Doubtless it’s an enormously daunting task to adapt a book at once so sweeping and internal, so swooningly romantic and philosophical, but it takes a lighter touch and a more expansive view than Newell and Harwood seem to bring. Julian Schnabel’s upcoming “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” finds the whole, wide universe in a paralyzed man’s imagination and memory (he’s unable to speak or move except for his left eyelid). Garcia Marquez’s characters are transported across time and space not just by their journey but by their longing, their delusions, their plans and their burning anger. Newell, meanwhile, tarts them up in cumbersome age makeup and florid sentiment, sticks them in tight, suffocating shots, drowns them in music and turns up the heat.
“Love in the Time of Cholera.” MPAA rating: R for sexual content/nudity and brief language. Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes. In wide release.