Is the world about to witness Cartagena’s coronation as the new city of love? Not quite.
Mike Newell’s “Love in the Time of Cholera,” although beautifully filmed and well acted by the leads, fails inexcusably with its script. The magic of García Márquez, evident in these first scenes, makes only rare appearances throughout the rest of the film.
“Love in the Time of Cholera” begins in 1880 with fervent first-sight love. The young Florentino Ariza, played by Javier Bardem (“The Sea Inside”), comes across the beautiful Fermina Daza, played by popular Italian actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno. Although no words are exchanged, they fall desperately in love. Though physical consummation is prevented by their differing social statuses and Fermina’s father, they incessantly send each other love letters and telegraphs, in which Florentino vows his eternal love.
Distance, Fermina’s marriage to another man, and Florentino’s promiscuity (623 women by the end of the film) keep these star-crossed lovers apart. Florentino endlessly awaits the death of Fermina’s husband (Benjamin Bratt): only then will he allow himself to re-woo his unrequited love.
In typical García Márquez style, Newell’s adaptation of “Cholera” assaults the senses with exotic pleasures. Much of the film’s beautiful footage was shot in South America’s scenic tropical rainforests. The score, composed by Antonio Pinto, and the songs—written and sung by Colombia’s finest female vocalist, Shakira—provide a harmonious touch, and exude both the lonely and hopeful tone achieved by the book.
Javier Bardem, one of Spain’s finest actors, excels in his performance, capturing both Florentino’s pain and his desperation. Giovanna Mezzogiorno skillfully depicts Fermina and perfectly conveys her character’s satirical humor, which, with a script as flawed as “Cholera,” could have easily come across as hackneyed. The two actors have fantastic chemistry, and the rare scenes where both characters are together are the jewels of “Cholera.” Expert make-up work helps transform both characters from inexperienced teenagers to aged lovers.
Turning a Latin-American novel into an English film is a very difficult task: the translation can easily render a beautifully poetic line in Spanish as corny in English. García Márquez’s writing makes this translation even more difficult. His prose is known for its detail, harmonious meter, and subtle humor—rarely do any of these attributes make it to the big screen.
Undoubtedly, this becomes the film’s tragic flaw. The film would have been profoundly better in its native language, where direct quotes could have been used, and more of the novel’s delights retained.
However, sprinkled throughout the film are moments where the author’s language is adequately conveyed in his signature writing style. These lines include, “Very well, I will marry you only if you don’t make me eat eggplant” and “Ha! Your father used to have sex in the very same position.” Moments like these bring back the magical realism so distinctive to Márquez’s text.
Despite the film’s flaws, the novel’s themes resonate throughout the final scenes, elevating the movie out of its prior mediocrity. In the end, Florentino orders the captain of his ship to raise the yellow flag, thereby announcing the presence of cholera on board, so he and Fermina can be alone. Their love has become a disease, which ironically allows them to remain together eternally, through life and death.
Although “Love in the Time of Cholera” is much too long and relies on the cliché (imagine “I have bigger fish to fry” being said in a cheap Colombian accent), the inherent splendor and appeal of the story make this a good film, even if it pales in comparison to García Marquez’s novel.