'Love in the Time of Cholera': A Fever That Soon Fades

Benjamin Bratt as Dr. Urbino in
Benjamin Bratt as Dr. Urbino in "Love in the Time of Cholera," which fails to capture the novel's power and subtlety. (By Daniel Daza -- New Line Cinema)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 16, 2007

For its legions of fans, the novel "Love in the Time of Cholera," by the Nobel Prize-winning Gabriel García Márquez, is akin to the Magna Carta, the ur-text of love, transcendence and spectacular writing. So screenwriter Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist," the upcoming film "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") and director Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") had an almost insurmountable degree of difficulty not only in adapting Márquez's dense, magical-realist prose but in winning over the novel's fiercest devotees.

They haven't failed, exactly, but neither have they succeeded. "Love in the Time of Cholera" preserves the sweeping time frame and erotic charge of the book while largely dispensing with its more seductive subtleties. It's as difficult to imagine bringing the book to the screen without paring it down to its bare narrative bones as it is to imagine a book less well served by a mere episodic retelling. The movie version of "Love in the Time of Cholera" is a story, where the novel was a world.

Newell has mounted a sumptuous production and enlisted a stunning cast to bring the multi-generational tale to life, although it remains to be seen if audiences will accept Javier Bardem, who plays the homicidal psychopath in "No Country for Old Men," as the moony, love-besotted poet Florentino Ariza. As a messenger boy in 19th-century Cartagena, Colombia, Florentino falls in love with the ethereal beauty Fermina Daza. When her father objects, Florentino takes up the torch, pining for her for more than 50 years as the country is wracked by cholera and revolution, and she is married to the prosperous Dr. Juvenal Urbino.

Bardem makes a suitably dreamy Florentino, who when he can't have Fermina embarks on an epic sexual journey that he dutifully chronicles woman by woman. But casting is also part of the problem in "Love in the Time of Cholera," whose all-star ensemble begins to be a distraction. Yes, that's Liev Schreiber as the young Florentino's boss, and yes, that's John Leguizamo as Fermina's striving father; when Benjamin Bratt shows up as Urbino, some viewers may roll their eyes at what looks like a New York casting call.

The exception is the luminous Italian actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno, who as Fermina swoons quietly with just the right seductive sadness. With her limpid eyes and pale lips, she's essentially a cipher -- when Florentino falls for her, he falls for his own projections and desires -- but by the time Fermina's life enters its surprising third act, the disappointments and compromises of her life are palpable (if not seen: We never encounter the Urbinos' children until they're fully grown).

There's something wonderful about Fermina's sagging flesh in one of the final scenes of "Love in the Time of Cholera," which invites viewers to wallow along with Florentino as he obeys his mother's advice to enjoy his suffering. Still, just as there isn't enough time and space in the world to contain a broken heart (as the film suggests), there isn't enough movie to contain the almost incantatory power of Márquez's book. Lush, extravagant, sad and touching, this film version of "Love in the Time of Cholera" still feels weirdly insubstantial when all the febrile passion has abated. Like a fever it breaks, passes and is forgotten.

Love in the Time of Cholera (129 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for sexual content, nudity and brief profanity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company