A novel about endless devotion has been turned into a film that seems to go on forever in Mike Newell’s adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera.” The movie, about Florentino (Javier Bardem), a Colombian man who nurses the love that he felt at first sight for Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) for more than fifty years during her marriage to Dr. Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), only to finally link with her after her husband’s death, isn’t exactly boring. But it holds the interest in a perverse way: you’re fascinated to see just how many false steps it can take. Instead of being magically romantic, it comes off more than a little ludicrous.
That’s because both scripter Ronald Harwood and Newell seem to have been totally flummoxed about how to transpose the material to the screen. They’re trying for something oversized and woozily emotional—I think—but actually they just plow through the plot, with a result that’s stolid rather than transporting. They’re not helped by a physical production (designed by Wolf Kroeger, with art direction by Roberto Bonelli and Paul Kirby, set decoration by Elli Griff and costumes by Marit Allen) that makes the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Cartigena where the story is set look like neither the real thing nor some fantasy world but a tacky movie set. And Affonso Beato’s pedestrian cinematography treats the locale with no special visual flair.
Of course, masterful performances might still suffice, but Newell elicits none. Bardem, who works wonders with near impassivity in “No Country for Old Men,” is hobbled by a role that not only forces him to wander about for much of the picture looking like a wounded puppy but encrusts him in old-age makeup in the later reels, too. (Actually Unax Ugalde, as the young Florentino, is more impressive. And he looks as though he could grow up into Bardem, too.) It makes the subplot about Florentino’s bedding hundreds of women during his fifty years apart from Fermina (622 at the final count we’re given in his running narration, which feels like a poor cousin to Leporello’s catalogue aria in “Don Giovanni”) silly—never more so than in the sequence involving his only true lover, Olimpia, who’s played with stunning amateurishness by Ana Claudia Talancon).
Mezzogiorno is more animated and vivacious, but she’s unable to convey Fermina’s bewildering range of emotions convincingly (the character’s sudden change of attitude toward Florentino after return from the country comes out of left field), and she’s undermined by the makeup in the latter stages, too. So is Catalina Sandino Moreno as her earthy cousin. The remainder of the cast is mostly embarrassing. That includes Bratt, who poses and preens more than he acts; Liv Schreiber, who’s nondescript as Florentino’s first boss; Fernanda Montenegro, as his protective mother; and especially John Leguizamo, who chews the scenery unbecomingly as Fermina’s status-conscious but thuggish father. The sole supporting player to enliven things is Hector Elizondo, almost unrecognizable between huge fake sideburns, who draws an amusing portrait of Florentino’s uncle.
“Love in the Time of Cholera” is like “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” and “Goya’s Ghosts”—a big, ambitious period film that makes its subject puny. But at least it offers an occasional laugh, intentionally or no.