Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a great writer not because he gives each of his readers a window into a world, but because he gives them a vista. His masterful, take-my-hand-and-I’ll-take-you-there style invites each one of us into the verdant sprawl of South American jungles, festering humid air, lands ripe with fruits and fauna, as well as disease. And even in this, Marquez creates characters who struggle with the recurring problems of life and love which exist in every other part of the world. This point is emphasized in Love in the Time of Cholera, as a young telegraph operator in an unnamed Colombian port city falls for the beautiful and inaccessible rich girl. Although the story begins as “Romeo and Juliet” set in the Amazon, the novel is truer to life. Imagine if Romeo and Juliet were separated for two years, and upon their reunion Juliet confesses, “I’m sorry, but I’m over it. (laughs) We were kids. We had no idea what we were doing. I’ve decided to marry a doctor.”
In the movie Juliet, or rather, Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), daughter of the successful but duplicitous Lorenza Daza (John Leguizamo), is approached by the shy telegram delivery boy; Florentino Ariza (Javier Bardem). Vowing eternal love for one another, Florentino and Fermina begin a clandestine correspondence later outed by Fermina’s father, who sends his daughter off into the depths of the jungle. Florentino becomes violently ill when Fermina is taken away, and his mother lugubriously claims his sickness to be cholera. But Florentino gives a weak smile and says, “No mama, it’s just love, you’re confusing cholera with love”. After Fermina returns as a blossomed young woman, Florentino begins to wish it were cholera. Fermina’s first sighting of Florentino revolts her, and she tells him to “Forget it,” leaving Florentino to once again confine himself to bed for weeks. So Fermina marries the rich handsome Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt) into wealth and society and Florentino sinks into a deep depression, until his mother convinces her brother-in-law to take on her son into his prosperous ferry boat company along the Magdalena river. Working as a clerk, Florentino discovers sex for the the first time with a group of woman on one of his uncle’s passenger barges, and what proceeds is a long journey of sexual escapism to rid himself of his unrequited love. Fermina settles down with her husband and begins a conventional life, while Florentino bears his bachelor’s gait with painful joy.
In order for the film adaptation of Love in the Time of Cholera to be successful, it had to seduce the reader in the way the book did. Much of what makes the novel so evocative is the language Marquez employs; long flowing sentences stuffed with every adjective imaginable. The film’s cinematography more than acts as a suitable replacement for the words on the page. The South America shown is a lush and dangerous world. Disease, civil war and poverty rampage throughout the land, but there is an unmistakable joie de vivre emitting from every character. Bardem, Mezzogriorno, and Bratt have the charisma and talent necessary to pull off their love triangle even when epidemics and revolutions surround them. They are all remarkably three-dimensional, able to show both strength and weakness simultaneously. This allows for the character development for each actor to come across as authentic and poignant.
The film was shot in 2007 by British director Mike Newell, who, oddly enough, was responsible for Four Weddings and a Funeral. Newell’s background in comedy is very much present in Cholera’s adaptation. The melodrama, inherent in the premise of the story, is layered in with slapstick and witty humor, and the end result is a love story that is believable. Newell’s camera says, emotional turbulence isn’t always as black as it feels; we forget how often there is still room to laugh. And knowing how to balance drama and comedy is a trait all great films have. Despite the overall message of each film, watching a continually tortured character on screen is boring. In a novel which has so much life in it, Newell was responsible for conveying that effectively to his audience, and for the greater part he succeeds.
Although I praise the film for successfully capturing the spirit of the book, I choose to think of it as a rough diamond. The adaptation is, at times, beautifully flawed, but on mere technical grounds. Choppy editing, poor make-up, and inconsistent pacing occasionally trip up the even waltz of the story. But this is all forgivable, in fact, it is even better forgotten. I suggest to see this film in the right mood, and to read the book first, otherwise some interactions may seem caricature and nonsensical. If nothing else, the material is sexy. And whether you start seeing more of yourself in Dr. Urbino, Fermina, or Florentino, it will be hard to deny how real they seem to each one of us.
by Stefan Cartlidge