Love in the Time of Cholera

Mike Newell's screen version of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's great romantic novel is a major disappointment, a listless, unerotic melodrama that plods along from one time frame to another, without capturing either past or present, leaving no visual, emotional or spiritual impact at film's end.

This saga, which is uninvolving on any level, proves to be the wrong project for the versatile Mike Newell, a director with an uneven record and checkered career. When Newell is good, he's really good (“Dance With a Stranger,” “Enchanted April,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral”), and when he is bad, he's really bad (“Into the West,” the Julia Roberts botched period vehicle, Mona Lisa Smile”). There's no “in between” in the work of Newell, one of the most impersonal, anti-auteurist filmmaker around–some of it by choice. In the hands of another director, say Alfonso Cuaron, or Aussie John Duigan (“Wide Sargasso Sea,” “Sirens”), the film could have been a lush, dazzling epic, done in magical realism style.

On paper, all the ingredients point to the kind of film we don't see anymore: A hauntingly soulful evocation of unrequited passion, driven by powerful and complex emotions, set against myriad of shifting historical and political forces. The novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “Love in the Time of Cholera,” was highly acclaimed by critics and became an international best-seller. The adaptation is done by a skillful, Oscar-winning screenwriter, Ronald Harwood (Polanski's “The Piano,” among others). And it stars an actor who can do no wrong, Javier Bardem (“The Sea Inside,” “Before Night), who this season excels in the Coen brothers' modernist Western, “No Country for Old Men.”

Set in Argentina circa 1879, during a cholera epidemic, the fable unfolds as a kind of surreal dream-fantasy about the yearning of two aging, world-weary individuals, who are granted a second chance at first love. The premise is simple–Florentino Ariza must wait more than half a century to declare his undying love for the beautiful Fermina Daza, a woman he had lost many years ago–but the storyline is rather complex.

When Florentino (Javier Bardem), a young, poor man living with his mother (Fernanda Montengro of “Central Station” fame), first catches sight of the stunning Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), he is utterly enthralled, as he has never seen such beauty. He begins to write her love letters, waiting outside her door, hoping to get another glance. His words are poetry to Fermina's ears, and she agrees to marry him. However, when her domineering father (John Leguziamo) learns of the proposal, he sends Fermina to live with relatives in a distant city, because he deems the lad inferior and unworthy of his daughter.

Though heartbroken, since love has been wrenched from him, Florentino continues to harbor unrelenting passion for Fermina. Eventually, he finds a way to reach her, and through his letters, their relationship is rekindled. However, when Fermina returns, she is a different woman. Time, the many years that have passed, has made realized that their love is not real, that it was an adolescent illusion, a youthful fantasy. As a result, Fermina marries Juvenal Urbino, a renowned handsome and rich doctor (Benjamin Bratt), perceiving him as a good, compatible mate.

Heartbroken, Florentino tries to move on as well, sharing his bed, but never his heart, with different women. Achieving success in business, he becomes the kind of distinguished gentleman that Senor Daza had sought for his daughter. Even so, he never gets married.

Decades pass, during which Fermina and Juvenal grow old together, living a prosperous life filled with family and social duties, but their marriage is troubled due to hubby's unfaithfulness. When she is 72, Juvenal dies, forcing Fermina, after years of being a loyal wife and dutiful mother, to adjust to the status and life of a widow.

As is the convention in such literature, prospects for love are not lost. Florentino has been waiting in the shadows. Initially, Fermina rejects his advances, but after a year, she accepts his invitation for a rendez-vous. She is ready to recapture the magic of her youth, and Florentino, after decades of waiting, finds Fermina. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and Florentino continues to perceive Fermina as gorgeous and desirable as she ever was.

Poorly mounted on a technical level, conventionally written, and tediously paced, “Love in the Time of Cholera” never finds its right toneor look. Under Newell's misguided helming, the film vacillates between serious erotic drama, excessive melodrama that in segments feels like TV soap, and scenes with humor that's too broad instead of being subtle.

The love scenes, between the younger as well as the older characters, are dull and don't generate any heat or empathy. Newell has never been good with romantic stuff, and his weakness is particularly glaring here, since he misses the opportunity of showing love and desire between older characters, a no-no sight in mainstream Hollywood millers.

Acting-wise, the cast gives the impression of poorly assembled thespians, of different nationalities, acting styles and accents. It takes a particularly misguided director to get a bad performance from Javier Bardem, who looks uncomfortable with the part. As played by Italian actress Mezzogiorno, Fermina is beautiful, but her accent is inconsistent and unconvincing.

There are so few films with good roles for Latino and Hispanic actors that you feel bad watching Hector Elizondo, playing Florentino's employer, sporting a blond wig and delivering his lines in an uncharacteristically indifferent manner. Also underwhelming is the usually reliable Leguziamo, who's overdoing the humor and nastiness of the father.

Two distinguished actresses are underused, probably due to the weak writing and direction. Brazillian Montengro, so impressive in her Oscar-nominated turn in Walter Salles' “Central Station,” has too small a part to register, and so does Catalina Sandino Moreno (Oscar-nominee for “Maria Full of Grace”) as Ferminas best friend.

“Love in the Time of Cholera” strikes me as a missed opportunity for evoking magical realism, additionally suffering from similar flaws that lead to the artistic and commercial failure of the recent attempt at erotic historical melodrama, “Silk,” from Francois Girard

Cloaking in at 139 minutes, the film overextends its welcome by at least 20 minutes, and a whole reel could have been excised without damaging the film's coherence.