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Friday, Aug. 1, 2008
'Love in the Time of Cholera'
Bitten by a crazy disease called love
By KAORI SHOJI
It's easy to fall in love with a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but certain obstacles stand in the way of loving his characters. As time goes by and one becomes increasingly mired in the concerns of the 21st century — "Should I buy an iPhone?" "How many minutes do I have left on this exercise machine?" — his characters seem freakishly unreal, unnecessarily passionate and terribly incorrect, politically. (The guy who kills his bride because she wasn't a virgin? The granny who peddles her granddaughter as a prostitute but still says she loves her? These people could never cut it in the real world.)
Anyone who has dipped into the pages of a Garcia Marquez novel will feel the heat rising from the pages like some exotic South American fever, luring us into a dream world where the air is fetid with lust and a deep, unquenchable desire for love. They will also discover that none of the people in his books will work for us in terms of family, friends, or even drinking buddies. It's little wonder that with the exception of "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" (1987) no Garcia Marquez novel has been adapted — relating to his characters is just too hard.
So, "Love in the Time of Cholera" comes as a surprise, not least because it was directed by Brit Mike Newell, better known for arid rom-coms like "Four Weddings and a Funeral" than a mightily caloric love story spanning 50-odd years. And though you want to applaud the director for his courage in taking on this grand-scale project, it could have fared better in different hands. "Love . . . " is a sprawling, sticky epic of a love relationship set in the cholera-ridden Colombia of the early 1900s. Balancing the metaphors of love and the deadly disease, it charts a one-sided romantic obsession that defies logic, common sense and several laws of physics. It's classic Garcia Marquez, where the main characters are outlandishly, ridiculously . . . Garcia Marquez. And the difficulty of drawing him shows, because Newell clearly has his hands full in dealing with his idiosyncrasies, and he falls short in transporting the rich, feverish eroticism of Marquez' prose. As it is, "Love . . . " feels chilly and stiff and faded in color, as if some voluptuous jungle flower had been forcibly transferred to a wintry, sunless England.
Florentino (Javier Bardem) is a young telegraph operator barely out of his teens when he first spots Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and falls prey to an obsession that has no cure. Happily, Fermina responds to his ardor halfway, but her father (played by a spluttering, inexplicably campy John Leguiziamo) rages against their union and takes her away. For the next 53 years, Florentino continues to nurse his undying love and "eternal fidelity" to Fermina, even as she fobs him off to marry the wealthy and prestigious doctor Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt). Heartbroken, Florentino finds consolation in other women, 622 of them to be exact. From his first experience with a mysterious lady whose identity he never finds out (she yanks him into her ship cabin as he's walking past her door) to a distant relation entrusted to his care and young enough to be his granddaughter, Florentino has enormous success with attractive women of every rank and description. "What is your secret?" asks a friend in envious exasperation. Florentino shrugs and replies: "Women can see that I mean them no harm."
Indeed, Florentino is modest and unobtrusive, in his own words "a shadow" that has no intrusive substance. His real love, and by implication his real self (for Florentino equates love with the very essence of existence), is reserved for Fermina — the rest are mere flings that he records in his little notebook. Meanwhile, Fermina lives with the doctor, mothers his children, has domestic squabbles great and small, and lives out her life. And on the day of her husband's funeral, Florentino walks into her house and tells her that he has been waiting his whole life for this day, and pledges his everlasting love. She throws him out. He writes her love letters. She doesn't reply. He writes her some more. And finally, both in their 70s, they bond as friends and then lovers.
What defines the film is, of course, Florentino. If you can love him, you love the film. But it's hard not to see this guy as an undiluted creep with the hide of five rhinos, sensitive to nothing else but his own bleatings about love and sex. The expression on Fermina's face as she finally gives into his persistence speaks not of the joy of being wanted, but a sad resignation. You want to hand her a bat so she can at least bludgeon Florentino, but no — sighing like a woman who's too old to care anymore, she undresses and climbs into bed beside him, staring at the ceiling as he turns to face her.