At once florid and plodding, Mike Newell’s film of Gabriel García Márquez’s epic romance makes the magical realism all too literal. Though the tedium is occasionally buoyed by Shakira’s vibrant soundtrack contributions, for the most part, Love in the Time of Cholera is more like Cliff’s Notes than a fully considered translation, listing one event after another, much like the lovesick Florentino records his numerous sexual conquests in a diary.
The basic story arc follows the story of postal clerk Florentino (Unax Ugalde as a teenager, then Javier Bardem through adulthood and old age) from the moment he first spots the blue-eyed beauty Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). In Cartagena, Colombia, 1879, they appear to share the excitement of young love, giddy as they sneak out of their homes to meet one another. He writes book-length letters and pretentious poetry, each flowery phrase as much a tribute to himself as to her. Still, she’s young enough to feel aflutter, alarming her widower father Lorenzo (John Leguizamo in a distractingly outsized turn that might best be described as Snidely-Whiplashish). An avaricious social climber, he won’t allow his daughter to marry a mere clerk. “I have to explain myself,” he tells her, “It’s difficult because I’m a plain man. A daughter is a jewel. I’m a rough diamond… You’re much too beautiful to marry a telegraph operator. At your age, love is an illusion.”
She takes this notion to heart, accepting his decision that she be “forget” Florentino, even as he engages in a prodigious project of remembering. Their evolving desires are repeatedly coded as “illness,” according to the novel’s central metaphor. On her return home, Fermina appears to be sick with dreaded cholera that’s afflicting the local population. Lorenzo is delighted when the attending doctor, Juvenal (Benjamin Bratt) takes an interest in his daughter (made visible when he leans his ear against her heaving breasts). Determining that she is not in fact suffering from cholera, the doctor subsequently accepts a thank you from Lorenzo, his obedient daughter.
Given the turn of the century setting, it appears that Fermina’s two suitors embody different directions of thought and energy, Florentino the inventive romantic and Juvenal the European-trained and practical-minded scientist (“The important thing in marriage,” he sums up late in the film, “is not happiness but stability”). But as the majority of the population is struggling to survive disease, poverty, and the effects of greedy government leaders, Fermina’s story never quite achieves a broader social and political resonance. Instead, she puts up with her husband’s “lessons in love” and bears him several children (“I’ve never been able to understand how your thing works,” she tells Juvenal on their first night. “How ugly it is, even uglier than a woman’s thing”). Inspiring men to art or order, Fermina remains a cipher, an object in Juvenal’s possession and of Florentino’s endless affection without an emotional life of her own.
The few scenes that do intimate Fermina’s girlish-into-womanly yearnings feature her cousin Hildebranda (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a character so sensuous and joyous that she nearly embodies the novel’s combinations of ethereal and material splendors, its leap into enchantment. Hildebranda lives off in the mountain village, where she describes for Fermina her passionate affair with a married man 20 years her senior and where Lorenzo imagines Fermina will be safe from the stimulations of the city. Breathtakingly beautiful, the village comes to represent the women’s fleeting freedom from men’s rules.
Sadly, their visits with each other are few and far between, as most of the film focuses on Florentino’s reaction to the loss of Fermina. He comes up a very peculiar coping device — sleeping with 622 partners over 51 years, a lesson he learns after a visit to the whorehouse arranged by his uncle (Hector Elizondo). “My destiny in life is to love Fermina,” he says, which means that he must suffer. Lacking the ironic observations of Márquez’s third person narrator, the film resorts to Good Luck Chucky montages: Florentino sleeps with all manner of women, in all manner of locations and positions, and somehow, he’s the victim, at least in his own mind. (A couple of his “conquests” stand out, especially the extravagant and melodramatic Sara [Laura Harring], before she’s reduced to a comedy routine.) As he records each encounter, Florentino tells himself (and you, dear listener), that the sheer number indicates the depth of his pain. Fermina, he declares, is “a splinter that cannot be pulled out, she’s part of me.”
Fermina finds her own way to cope with men’s expectations, treating Florentino and Juvenal more or less equally. “What is between us,” she tells Florentino before banishing him from her sight, “is nothing more than an illusion.” On hearing Juvenal’s confession that he has been having an affair, and oh dear, suffering pain in his heart so great that he feels he may die, she spits, “That would be best. At least then, we would both have some peace.”
As welcome as such moments are, the film seems determined to smother Fermina’s wit in order to emphasize Florentino’s anguish. (Its determination to show his every passing year becomes manifestly ludicrous in its unconvincing old-ageing makeup: Mezzogiorno and Bratt’s latex masks look especially false.) As Fermina makes the best of her distinctly female lot (enduring her father’s abuses, raising kids, putting up with a cheating spouse), Florentino makes the most of his manly leeway, rhapsodizing about his torment to the end. Approaching Fermina 53 years after they first met, he insists, “Age has no reality except in the physical world. Spirits remain as youthful and vigorous as when we were in full bloom.” Even if you believe it, the film loses such magic in its commitment to mechanics.