The trouble filmmakers face when bringing Gabriel García Marquez to the screen is the same as those who’ve tried their hand at Ian McEwan. The torments of memory, to borrow a phrase from Love in the Time of Cholera, is the dominating theme of both Gabo and McEwan’s bodies of work, but the ease with which these two great writers give uncanny expression to the intangible is not the forte of such filmmakers as Francesco Rosi, Arturo Ripstein, Roger Michell, Joe Wright, and Mike Newell. When Juvenal (Benjamin Bratt) falls from the ladder in the opening scene of Newell’s adaptation of the greatest love story ever told, it is just a man falling from a ladder, rather than a man confronted by “the fate of unrequited love.” Stripped of its bittersweet meaning, my favorite scene in all of literature is reduced to a tableau of gorgeous leafage and impeccable old-age makeup.
Gabo’s 1985 novel is a magical realist chronicle of a man who pledges his fidelity to one woman for a lifetime—in spirit if not in body. Now it is a film, directed by Newell from a screenplay by the Oscar-winning Ronald Harwood that is as noble as Florentino Ariza’s life-long infatuation with Fermina Daza, though something of a failure. The opening credits evoke the florid dust jacket of the book’s older hardcover editions before Newell botches the essence of Juvenal’s at once dramatic and unassuming exit from the world. Newell, strangely, overlooks the book’s great hot-air balloon ride, which symbolizes the daunting passage of time for Florentino and Juvenal’s privileged distance from the very disease he is devoted to conquering. That passion is unseen here, with cholera frequently but trivially interjecting Florentino and Fermina’s star-crossed love affair, devoid of Gabo’s interest in drawing links between its devastation and a country’s loss of cultural and social identity.
Newell’s film adaptation is middling at best. His sense of scale is polite when it should be woozy, and his sense of pacing, while occasionally dramatic, never stops the heart, but the film’s period detail is sometimes immaculate—more legitimate than the Disneyland exoticism of claptrap like Memoirs of a Geisha though not as deliriously keyed to character as it is in the films of Visconti or Humberto Solás. Newell also understands the implications of some of the book’s great, deceptively insignificant bits, like Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) telling a young Florentino (Unax Ugalde) that she will marry him, but only if he doesn’t make her eat eggplant. Later, when Juvenal feeds his wife a delicious dish that, unknown to Fermina, contains the forbidden fruit, the smile on his face evokes conquest after years of battle but also foreshadows doom.
Equally iffy is the acting. John Leguizamo, as Fermina’s father, seems to perform under the delusion that Baz Luhrmann is behind the camera, but Fernanda Montegro mitigates his shrill expression of filial worship. As played by the great Brazilian actress, Transito Ariza is not just a mother fiercely, almost erotically, devoted to her son but a woman committed to preserving a vital but dying form of romantic expression. Rejected by Fermina, the older Florentino (Javier Bardem) buys his time until the death of Juvenal by writing letters for those who can not write and with casual though not insignificant affairs with hordes of women—a painful ritual sanctioned by Transito. Florentino is the product of a long-ago illicit love affair that is unmentioned in the film but still felt in Montenegro’s eyes, which progressively take on a crazed look as the film progresses—the rapturous rite of a mother dying so that a son can live and one day love.
Montenegro and Bardem’s scenes together are the film’s highlights, though equally notable is how Ugalde and Mezzogiorno make credible Florentino and Fermina’s love-at-first-sight. The essence of this story blooms from this one ardent look exchanged between Florentino and Fermina inside the courtyard of her father’s manse. Torn apart by the cruelties of class, Florentino and Fermina suffer equally, though one more passively than the other: She tries to forget him, chalking up their love to an illusion, while he chooses to love her vicariously through the bodies of women whose emotions Newell does not trivialize. “May I sit beside you and cry?” asks the widow Sara Noriega (Laura Harring). Another man would squirm at this virtual stranger’s frankness, but Florentino has the soul of a poet, and as such understands the suffering implicit in her request, indulging her before sticking it to her. Would that Newell’s visual panache were as robust as his understanding of the novel’s romantic implications, but what the film lacks in brio it makes up for in reverence.