The Reeler


November 15, 2007

Love in the Time of Cholera

Newell turns a classic love story into a tour de force of trite

From Dante to Don Quixote to Borat and everywhere in between, including Gabriel Garcia Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, some of our favorite stories involve men who fall hopelessly, permanently, delusionally in love at first sight. The instant soul mate narrative allows the author to initiate a discourse on the nature of love, lust, fidelity and loyalty, as well as the folly and foolishness of a man held sway by a swollen heart. It's Literature 101, and yet so few have gotten it right; the same holds true for cinema, where the visual clichés are as rampant as red roses and blue violets. The same most egregiously holds true for director Mike Newell's adaptation of Márquez's romantic classic, which proves the mundane rule, rather than the swooning exception.

An embarrassment from start to finish, Love in the Time of Cholera is a tour de force of trite, making no attempt to present its structural sign posts as anything more than careworn cliché. Of course even the greatest narratives can be boiled down to bone-dry, skeletal similarity; we depend on the artist, as Alexander Pope once wrote, to craft "what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed." Here when a young man named Florentino Ariza (played by Unax Ugalde as a youth) first lays eyes on the placidly lovely Fermina Urbino (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) -- the woman who will obsess him his entire life -- in 1879 Colombia, everything from the camera cues to the editing to the simpering acting to the limp-wristed score is straight-up saccharine, infusing its pivotal, classical romantic trope with all the poetry of a dog dish.

The two teenagers (forcibly separated by Fermina's father, who wants a suitor with a higher station in life for his daughter) begin corresponding by letter. Fermina, despite the exchange of many heated oaths, decides that her feelings for Florentino were an illusion the moment she sees him again (perhaps it was the magical transformation into a leering, practically lisping Javier Bardem that did it), though the lover is undeterred, declaring his fidelity to her for all time. His patience has limits, however, and when he loses his virginity by being basically raped by a woman on a boat, he develops a taste for meaningless sex that he documents like an accountant; even the seductions are tiresome and unsexy, his conquests a collage of whining, wheedling, whoring idiots.

Where a film like West Side Story, with all of its clinching generic and structural conventionality, still managed to make the first glimpse between Maria and Tony a visually and aurally inspired sequence -- to bind us to them and their plight -- Newell offers nothing in the way of style or format to bring the passion of Florentino and Fermina to life. They are worse than avatars, which at least have the potential to embody and reflect the projected desires of the viewer; Newell's lovers absorb all available light, sealing it tight within their heavily made-up faces and numbingly banal language.

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The comparative choice of love story is no accident: ironically most of the actors here, despite being of actual Latin descent (including Benjamin Bratt as the doctor Fermina chooses over Florentino, Hector Alizondo, John Leguizamo and the Colombian Catalina Sandina Moreno) speak in the generic, bargain barrio-accented English that made Natalie Wood the laughing stock of San Juan. Even Spaniard Bardem, playing Florentino as a grown man (I suppose we can call him that, although his ghastly pancake make-up and rouged lips make him look more like an undead undertaker), loses the ethnic credibility that is bred in the bone. When a film manages to drain itself of authenticity on even the levels it should be taking for granted, something especially, almost transcendentally awful is happening.

Newell offers no discernible period flavor for 19th-century Cartegena, and the prosthetic make-up supposed to age the characters over the decades succeeds only in matching the dinner-theater standards of their drippy dialogue and clockwork emotional cues. For a story about the enduring, sustaining power of love, there is not a single moment of exhilaration, not a tingle, not a ripple, not a heartbeat to spare. Florentino waits 51 years, nine months and four days for a moment of truth with his Fermina, and you'll feel every minute. As a character, he earns not empathy but a sort of pitiful derision, a child of a man with childish desires and whose development was arrested with that first glimpse of his ideal.

How to root for an old man who envisions love with the stock suppositions of someone who has never experienced it as anything but pulp fiction and wet dreams -- "a state of grace, the alpha and omega"? How, in other words, to be moved by the story of a man who, at the end of his life, still talks like a teenager? That's not romantic, that's a human (and in this case, cinematic) train wreck.

Comments (4)

it is obvious from your review that you haven't read the book. Otherwise, you would know that the 'drippy' dialogue as you call is taken word for word from the book. maybe next time, before you review a movie based on a classic novel, you could take the time to read the novel first? Or, maybe that's asking too much...

I can only echo greengirl..and weonder also is this the sort of thing you should be doing...?

ugh the Harry Potter guy doing my favorite book. I feel like i've just been urinated on.

This is a pretty fair, accurate, and well written acount of a exceedingly disappointing film. To all the clueless detractors in this post: This is a review of the film, NOT the book. Got it? Just because you are fanatically devoted to the book, does not make this disappointing film unimpeachable. Good Lord.

I don't see anywhere in this review, which really nails on the head all this film's many problems, an indictment of the book. Clearly he gives the book the benefit of the doubt.

Before you mindlessly react to any criticism, you might consider too that not all great books make good films, consider The Golden Compass.

I went into this film excited from hearing about how great the book is, and after the movie finally sputtered to an end, I was shocked at how bad the FILM was. It doesn't succeed on all the levels the critic aptly skewers and then some.
The only thing I didn't get was the critic's comment about the too heavy makeup. Mezzogiorno's plain face could have used some. BTW The actress with her unevenly dyed black hair was so poorly directed that you could feel her contempt for the project and the lead actors every moment she was on screen. Another reason that I could care less about the fate of the two supposed great lovers.

Bottom line, if you like the book root for a film maker who does it justice, don't attack the critics just doing their job. Especially those who seem far more thoughtful than you.

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