First, he sees her.
Florentino spots Fermina in a crowded marketplace, and the power of speech - for it is lost! For he is overpowered. For he is trapped in this movie adaptation of Love in the Time of Cholera. For there is no escape, not for the young Florentino - not ever! Alas, it is the late 19th century, in the sweltering Epcot Center Colombia pavilion, and evidence of cholera epidemics is sprawled and rotting on the stoops and sidewalks, front doors marked with warnings. But never mind! Love has arrived! Romantic love! Undying love! Glorious love! Creepy stalker love! Florentino, an excitable lad, immediately declares his allegiance to Fermina, who stares at him blankly, but Fermina's father, who chews a mean cigar, refuses this courtship - blah! For he is just a simple telegraph messenger and she deserves a great husband. So Fermina is sent away and Florentino is certain he will perish.
True love, she is not here.
"For there is no greater glory than to die for love," he declares, as he is prone to declaring, as he is prone to becoming melodramatic, effusive, and breathless.
Bah! For it is hopeless!
Once ensconced in the jungles of Colombia, far from her steady crush, Fermina learns to live without the yearning of Florentino's mash notes, as we all must. "We must learn to be happy without love," she tells her cousin, with whom she has been sent to live. Her cousin doesn't understand Fermina - "I don't understand? Happy without love?" Yes, sadly, Fermina confirms. "Happy without love." It is true. Meanwhile, years later, Fermina has married the local cholera doctor and Florentino has become wealthy and quite promiscuous - the Wilt Chamberlin of South American 19th-century river-boat industrialists.
He has 622 affairs - 622 moments where he has tried to keep Fermina far from his mind, even 50 years on, even when his latest fling is with a married woman who says, with the overwrought urgency of a Mexican soap opera, "Go! You must! For he is a very jealous man, my husband!"
In other words ... the second-annual Memoirs of a Geisha award ... goes to ... (drum roll) ....
Love in the Time of Cholera!
Which opens today in Toledo, an adaptation of the 1985 classic by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (first published in the United States in 1988). It will strike some audiences as sumptuous and romantic and others, English majors and Oprah Book Club members included, as a lost opportunity. It struck me as generous, big-hearted, and completely ill-conceived, with plenty of good and bad to go around - a misfire it is (rather, a mis-hire, in choice of director), though one with more naked people sweating in exotic climates than you could expect from any single Oscar mishap.
And Oscar mishap it is.
To be fair, one needs a certain degree of chutzpah to attempt to adapt it in the first place. If you have never read the great Garcia Marquez, his topics and his tone, and certainly lamely realized adaptations of that writing, will strike you as grandiose to a fault. But if you have read him, if you have succumbed to his spell, found yourself nuzzled deeply into one of his long, extravagantly ornate sentences, your first question is not who should adapt him but, how on earth could anyone adapt him?
Any Garcia Marquez adaptation runs the risk of appearing ridiculous - adrift without the one thing that makes it truly his:
Not for nothing Garcia Marquez has never sold the rights to an English adaptation of one of his books. Hollywood has a tendency to equate elaborately adorned settings and stately appearances with British writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries - to consider anything wrapped in a cummerbund as roughly steeped in the Merchant-Ivory-Masterpiece-Theater tradition. But Garcia Marquez, good manners aside, is firmly of the South American school of magical realism - indeed he is synonymous with whimsy. And sometimes art doesn't translate because it is so much of its original form that to remove that shape and context cuts off the air supply, and this is perhaps true of Garcia Marquez.
His rubbery grasp of time, and lush poetics, and distinct voice, with playful, flowery phrasing - it is so much of its source that it's almost superfluous to consider the intimidation that lays beyond those flights of language. But any filmmaker who takes it on must consider a story that spans generations, that Garcia Marquez is a Nobel laureate, that magical realism curdles without a balance between whimsy and grit, that Love in the Time of Cholera is a meditation on romantic, devoted love and oversexed, habitual philandering. Without a filmmaker willing to find a style as risky as all that, any adaptation would just seem ordinary - and possibly satiric.
Mike Newell, the director, and a fine director most of the time, doesn't have the temperament, the stamina, or headlong bravura. He wants to approximate the writer. He remains surprisingly faithful to the book and its scenes, but a thing is missing - something, hard to place at first. It opens with a luminous parrot landing on a mango tree, which sets you at ease. The lush greenery seems alive, and there's a rhapsody to talented cinematographer Affonso Beato's images, which raises hopes. It was shot around coastal Colombia, in the town where the reclusive Garcia Marquez (now 80) lives. And the cast, on paper, seems ideal: As Florentino, the almost fun to watch Javier Bardem; and as Fermina, Italian actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno, with a supporting cast that plays like an all-star Latin salute to the author: Benjamin Bratt is the doctor who steals Fermina, and John Leguizamo (way over the top) is her father, and Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) is her cousin - and, there's more:
Liev Schreiber is a German immigrant, Fernanda Montenegro is Florentino's mother, and Hector Elizondo is his well-connected uncle - and I forgot the original soundtrack by Shakira!
Alas, Newell is a realist, too clay-footed for this, not bad, not spectacular, just straight forward - the director of Donnie Brasco and Four Weddings and a Funeral and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and perfectly capable. But Garcia Marquez demands a wild stylist, a Pedro Almodovar (Volver) or an Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men), a filmmaker as virtuosic as the material. Without that, you might wonder what the huge fuss is all about.
Never mind that Bardem is playing on the edge of farce, and basically miscast - as is Mezzogiorno, who lacks the spark that suggests a focus of undying love. That love comes across as merely pathetic, and even puzzling - Florentino, get a life, guy! But Garcia Marquez paid elaborate attention to the differences between romance and obsession, and the practical versus the unreasonable. There's a degree of insanity in the novel, a recklessness Newell loses entirely and settles for ... pleasant.
Pleasant, not intoxicating.
Such is the nature of Oscar hopefuls. And about the cholera. I mean, what happened to the cholera? Perhaps I missed it, but I don't think we see a single person die of cholera in Love in the Time of Cholera. So little is at stake. But love, Garcia Marquez knew, is a disease. You want to succumb, to be consumed. After this film, love, that stirring in my belly, I became convinced, meant I hadn't eaten for two hours.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org