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Love in the Time of Cholera
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
A man is destined to be a helpless, single-minded romantic for his entire life. The author of this exceptional fantasy character, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, carries the notion to extremes, mining the concept for all the irony, comedy and tragedy it suggests. But, while the novel that's so rich in cultural and internal detail ensures its long life on the literary landscape, the adaptation to the visual realization of it as a generational saga by screenwriter Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist," ("Being Julia") and director Mike Newell ("Mona Lisa Smile," "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire") presents difficulties to those for whom romantic exaggeration might seem more ludicrous than endearing. Getting on the wavelength of the culture of the setting is a must.
Florentino Ariza's destiny is sealed during his teenage years (Unax Ugalde) with his first look at beautiful Fermina Daza, the jewel of a house well above his modest station in life as a telegraph operator. Given to poetry and florid letter writing, his written songs to Fermina win her heart and she accepts his proposal to marry. His mother is overjoyed, but when her daddy Lorenzo (John Leguizamo) catches wind of it he's less than pleased with her choice. A widower, he has brought her to Cartagena in order to attract a suitably high and elegant marriage.
He spirits her off for a year to effect her forgetfulness, a length of time that Florentino considers no problem at all. It's but a tick for a love that knows no time. Ah, but it's not for him alone to decide.
When she does return, she doesn't contact him, a sign he ignores. But we pick up on her decision to please her father by detaching herself from a man with such humble prospects. Even her cold dismissal of Florentino's ardor for resuming their relationship doesn't diminish him, or his dedication to his vow.
During an outbreak of cholera, Fermina takes ill, alarming father Lorenzo. When the eminent Doctor Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt) examines her, part of his procedure is to hold his ear to her bare and beautiful chest in order to listen to her heartbeat. When the super-confident, perfectly attired doctor declares that it's not the dread disease but a minor illness, the joy everyone feels is celebrated. At the same time, the doctor has been struck with another sort of illness, and it's not long before he formally asks for Fermina's hand in marriage, bringing great joy and fulfillment to Lorenzo's dream.
Perhaps not so much for Fermina's, though she takes full advantage of the lavish life style he provides, beginning with an extended honeymoon on the continent. Florentino, now a young adult (Javier Bardem), recovers from disappointment, resolving to simply to wait a bit longer. Fermina is as dedicated to the preservation of an increasingly cold marriage as Florentino is decicated to her.
Walking home one night, a woman's arm reaches out and pulls Florentino inside a building. In a fitful scene of quick, frantic lust, this seduction opens up a whole new world to our groom-in-waiting, who finds in it the key to women's hearts and desires. He begins a diary of his conquests which, by the time he reaches his later years will number well over six hundred. He has become a seduction machine that seems to defy age -- not a bad way to divert one's mind from a forestalled consummation of one's only true love. If it wasn't fiction, it would earn a certain entry for the record books, Casanova and other heroes of the love bed notwithstanding.
But sexual conquest isn't his only diversion. Owing his job to rich uncle Don Leo (Hector Elizondo), he appeals to the man for a job that might allow him also to enjoy the comforts of wealth. Don Leo, after some resistance to his nephew's request, employs him as an assistant in his riverboat business as a start to his career path.
The film is entirely in English, with all actors rendering Spanish accents with varying degrees of ability. There was certainly a need for a dialogue coach on this set! Notable appearances are those of Catalina Sandino Moreno (the gripping "Maria Full of Grace") as Fermina's protective companion and enabler, Fernanda Montenegro ("Central Station") as Transito, Florentino's scrappy mother, the spicy tarts, and Marcela Mar as the last of his sexual playthings who share with us their bountiful endowments.
Unfortunately, the performances of Bratt, Leguizamo and Elizondo are artificial, at best. They lack the interpretive depth to lift their characters beyond stereotype and, occasionally, laughable ones at that. Bratt, with the more pivotal role, simply fails to spark much interest and wastes and opportunity. These castings, probably chosen for the wrong reasons, diminish the film significantly.
Bardem, on the other hand, adds yet another reason to regard him as one of the distinguished screen presences of the age. While not yet emerging from limited recognition, mostly from his master performances in films such as "The Sea Inside" and "The Dancer Upstairs," his appearances in two major films this year (this one and "No Country For Old Men") on opposite ends of the character spectrum may change all that and bring him the wide recognition his talent demands. It may take a nomination in this year's Academy Awards, and that isn't out of the question.
On the soundtrack by Antonio Pinto ("Perfect Stranger," "Cronicas") I heard the most exquisitely stylized songs this year by the Latin sensation Shakira! Her songs, created for this film and well outside her standard repertoire, are the bolero, "Hay Amores" and the Incan, folkloric "Despedida" sung in a gutty, suggestive range with ornamental inflections -- an effect called melisma -- that would make it a show stopper were it not for its contribution to the atmosphere and sensuality on screen. Marquez' encouragement in bringing her aboard for the benefit of the story's carnal theme tells you something about his involvement with the production. Brava Shakira!
However this satiric vision of love and romance in 19th century Cartagena, Colombia works for you, there's no doubt that all involved will take great pride in being associated with a film derived from a major work by a Nobel Prize winning author. Given to grand ironies (the title tells you that), humor over the local and universal human condition, and deliberate surrealism, Marquez should be read by anyone interested in great literary originality. The film, if it accomplishes nothing else, exposes his slyly powerful work to a potentially broad readership.
The essence of the original is captured with enough fidelity to pay homage to it even if the magical mist between romantic obsession and hilarious satire that Marquez holds you in with the written word is missing. The movie is far too long, some of its exaggerations are laughable for the wrong reasons (especially to a modern Westernized audience?), and the attentions to ageing may play awkwardly for some -- but the idea that who we are and how we love are unaffected by the process of growing old -- as Florentino writes to Fermina in the last act of their lives -- is a theme that should resonate across cultural borders. Artfully couched in an envelope of surreal absurdity, its ironies are designed to question the contradictions and weaknesses of entrenched traditions. All reason enough to see and enjoy this significant piece of work.
The novel considered Marquez' masterpiece, first published in Spanish in 1967, is "One Hundred Years of Solitude."
~~ Jules Brenner