Love in the Time of Cholera
Directed by Mike Newell

Written by Ronald Harwood from the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Starring Javier Bardem, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Benjamin Bratt


Love in the Time of Cholera

One of the miracles of Gabriel García Márquez's novels is their uncanny use of an omnicient narrator, who spins out the tale in a voice so sincere and factual that we are lulled into taking everything we hear as truth, even the most magical episodes; "Well, of course," we say, as we hear about people living hundreds of years, or a dozen simultaneous actions taking place that cannot be done in reality. It's that trustworthy narrator who gains our attention and makes the magical realism work.

And it's what's missing from the film of "Love in the Time of Cholera." Although the film has a very realistic conceit, that a man's love for a woman will endure for his lifetime (see Joseph Cotten's memory of having once glimpsed a beautiful woman on the ferry, "...I never saw her after that but not a week has gone by that I haven't thought of her."), all we see in "Love in the Time of Cholera" is an almost clinical study of a man obsessed.

The film is set in Cartagena, a setting García Márquez often used, spanning the time from the late 19th century to the early 20th. Javier Bardem is Florentino Ariza, the spurned teenaged lover (here played by Unax Ugalde) of Fermina Daza, who is forbidden to marry him because he's just a telegraph operator; her father has a better match in mind, and in fact she does marry a doctor (Benjamin Bratt). But John Leguizamo, as the father, is such a one-note, dismal cartoon character that we lose all suspension of disbelief. And that is fatal to the story.

So Fermina marries Juvenal, the doctor, and goes to France for her honeymoon, while Florentino suffers. He becomes a clerk in his uncle's shipping company and ultimately becomes the wealthy owner of it. And how he suffers; he carefully compiles a list of every woman he makes love to - more than six hundred at last count - and then, fifty-three years later, when Juvenal finally dies, he comes to the funeral to declare his undying love for Fermina. He has remained a virgin, spiritually if not physically, so that his love for her will remain pure.

All of which is written in the novel, but sits here in the film as a vaporous plot line, with no weight or resonance; everything happens but nothing means anything. Another critic has suggested that the reason is that the director, Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") and the screenwriter (Ronald Harwood, who wrote "The Pianist") are both figures on the London stage and screen, and so do not have a feeling for a latin love story, which is what "Love in the Time of Cholera" is. I think the decision to do without an omnicient narrator was the key to the failure of the movie, removing the magic and changing it to the mundane; you cannot do that without destroying García Márquez's work.