Much of the great joy of reading an author like Gabriel Garcia Marquez is the fact that you’re reading him — that you’re allowing yourself to become engrossed in his florid phrasing and vivid descriptions, that he’s taking you to a fully realized place, and that you’re succumbing, gladly.
When a writer’s voice is as distinctive as the Colombian Nobel Prize winner’s, it’s difficult to replicate it on-screen, even though director Mike Newell and screenwriter Ronald Harwood remain largely faithful to “Love in the Time of Cholera” in their wildly flawed adaptation of Garcia Marquez’ sweeping 1985 novel about a decades-old romantic obsession.
Harwood won an Academy Award for his adaptation of “The Pianist”; here, he maintains much of the original dialogue, but the meaning and emotion behind it is often strangely lacking. So when the elegant Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt) assures his virgin bride (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) on their honeymoon, “This is going to be a lesson in love,” a line that might have seemed palatable on the page clangs on the ear instead.
Similarly, the lovesick Florentino Ariza, insufficiently fleshed out without the benefit of pages upon pages of back story, comes off as a crazed stalker, a guy who needs to get a life (as well as a sturdier stomach). This, despite that he’s played by Javier Bardem, an actor who’s shown time and again that he has a great capacity for subtlety (to see Bardem at his absolute best, check out his terrifying turn in “No Country for Old Men”).
Told mainly in flashback, “Cholera” follows the 51 years, nine months and four days from the time the young telegraph clerk Florentino first professes his love for the seemingly unattainable schoolgirl Fermina Daza (Mezzogiorno) until he catches up with her again following the accidental death of her husband (Bratt).
During that span, he takes 622 lovers (he keeps a running list of them in his journal) but longs for Fermina regardless of his companion. (One of them is played with endearing vulnerability by Laura Harring, who’s woefully underused. We also see too little of Liev Schreiber as Florentino’s boss and Fernanda Montenegro as his mother.)
Fermina, meanwhile, chose to marry the wealthy and far more socially acceptable Dr. Urbino; she’s lived a comfortable life with him and hasn’t thought of Florentino much until he shows up at her husband’s funeral, expects them to pick up where they left off.
Newell (“Donnie Brasco,” “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”) is all over the place in terms of tone — Garcia Marquez realized the innate ridiculousness of his characters, while Newell plays it straight — but he does go through the motions beautifully with the help of cinematographer Alfonso Beato. The jungles are lush, the urban scenes are appropriately teeming with humanity and the homes, clothes and carriages of turn-of-the-century Cartagena are intricately textured, as you’d expect from any massive period drama such as this.
It’s the actors themselves who all too often feel out of place.
Mezzogiorno is distractingly miscast as Fermina: lovely, yes, but too old to play her as a teenager and too young to be believable as a gray-haired widow. (The filmmakers wisely went with a younger actor, Unax Ugalde, to play Florentino as a teen.) Her portrayal of the character, who’s supposed to be unflappable in her haughtiness, is also surprisingly inert. Is this rather shy and personality-free Fermina the kind of woman for whom Florentino would pine — for over half a century?
Making matters worse is the arrival of Catalina Sandino Moreno (“Maria Full of Grace”), who’s so wicked and sexy and vibrant as Fermina’s adventurous cousin, Hildebranda, she makes you wish she’d been cast in the lead. And John Leguizamo, over-the-top as Fermina’s overprotective father, sounds laughably more like a New Yorker than the Colombian he is by birth.
The original songs from Shakira, who’s also from Columbia, are a nice touch, though. Come to think of it, she’d be more fun to watch in the role of Fermina, too.