“Love in the Time of Cholera,” the film adaptation of the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is an uneasy tightrope walk between art-film and sentimental Hollywood love story. For art, we have beautifully manicured mannequins sighing over tropical gardens; for entertainment, raunchy sex.
The novel tells the story of Florentino Ariza (Javier Bardem), a man who sleeps with over 600 women to distract himself from the agony of his unrequited love for Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), a woman he hardly knows. Ariza’s love is triumphant but ridiculous, beautiful but sick. The film, however, fails to realize this subtlety as it strives to entertain audiences with Florentino’s lewd sexual escapades and other not-very-funny episodes of absurd passion. Why is Florentino eating flower petals? Why is Fermina threatening suicide? These images only seem ridiculous, not compelling. Marquez’s art has been lost in translation.
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Although “Love in the Time of Cholera” is not essentially a magical realist novel, Marquez’s omniscient narrator has the ability to highlight magical details about its characters, who might otherwise seem mundane. “Love” is the epic story of a 50-year love triangle, and the novel features little dialogue. It is the retelling of a story of old, a myth, and so the characters are caricatures that represent ideas. In the novel, Marquez uses Florentino to explore the idea of love as a deadly disease, a metaphor the film largely skips over. The film’s characters, however, appear as empty shells, unreal but by no means magical.
British director Mike Newell (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”) uses Latin music, palm fronds and ripe fruit to conjure up passion and meaning. Maybe, the film suggests, if the characters repeat the beautiful Spanish names of their lovers and beloveds enough times we’ll start feeling it.
Faithful to the book, “Love” begins with the ending and works its way back engendering anticipation. The film begins in 1930s Bolivia with the death of Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt) and a declaration of love by Florentino to his long-lost love, Juvenal’s widow, Fermina. Fermina rejects Florentino and goes back home to look at a photograph of him, and we are brought back to the past, back to their meeting in 1879. We witness fifty years of unrequited love on the part of Florentino until we are brought back to the beginning of the film and Florentino and Fermina finally consummate their love or illusion, whichever it is. There is a moment of interest upon reviewing Fermina’s rejection of Florentino at her husband’s funeral. We wonder about the passage of time between the scene and its repetition. What have we learned about her statement after seeing all that has led up to it? Instead of wondering about how the past infects the present, how the movie affects our understanding of her refusal, we are just ready to leave.
Fermina ends up giving in to Florentino, and the couple starts a romance in their old age in which they return to scenes of the past. When we could be wondering about the continuity of the self throughout time, however, we are much more likely to wonder if the parallel scenes were shot together for convenience. In the final scenes, the wrinkled, white-haired lovers look back on their lives on earth, as if from heaven, and fail to come up with anything interesting to say about love or life. Silence, at least, would have retained some mystery where the matter is concerned.
By the end of the film, in which we get to see Fermina’s breasts for a second time, the only magic is in their transformation: from golden apples to shriveled prunes after fifty long years. Perhaps non-judgmental filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, master of irreverent humor and complex narratives, would have let Marquez’s characters breathe.