My classical education is, admittedly, a little lacking. I’ve never seen “Citizen Kane” on the big screen, never attended a ballgame at Wrigley Field, and I’ve never read Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s much-lauded story of unrequited love in turn-of-the-century Colombia. The book was recently chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club (which I’m certain was in no way connected the upcoming movie release), and if anyone knows great literature, it’s Oprah.
Things start off pleasantly enough, with the death of beloved local doctor Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt). The news is greeted differently by significant individuals. The doctor’s wife Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) is understandably grief-stricken, while local business magnate Florentino Ariza (Javier Bardem) sees the doctor’s passing as a great opportunity. Before the corpse has even cooled to room temperature, Florentino goes to the widow Urbino and pledges his love, saying he’s carried a torch for over 51 years. Fermina reacts as one would expect, casting the brazen supplicant from her sight.
What could possibly have stirred such tempestuous emotions? Why, nothing other than true love, though the affection ultimately ends up being a mite one-sided. After the funereal intro, “Love in the Time of Cholera” rests to – surprise – 51 years hence. It’s 1879 in Colombia, and a young Florentino (Unax Ugalde) lives with his mother and works as a telegraph operator. All seems placid in this 19th century nerd’s life until he spies the lovely Fermina. From that moment on, he’s obsessed, and for a time she returns the favor. The two embark upon a torrid letter-writing affair, culminating in Florentino’s proposal. But just as love seems about to conquer all, Fermino’s father Lorenzo (John Leguizamo), a local mule rancher, gets winds of things. A man with an eye for the upwardly mobile lifestyle, Lorenzo would rather move his entire family to the country than see his daughter marry a mere telegraph operator, and that’s just what he does.
Florentino falls into a deep depression, aggravating both his mother (Fernanda Montenegro) and his uncle (Hector Elizondo). While he’s pining, he does undergo something of an accidental deflowering. His reconciling of his newfound randiness with his continued devotion is one of the many unintentionally hilarious aspects of the movie.*
And if there’s a problem with “Love in the Time of Cholera,” it’s that it’s almost impossible to take seriously. Screenwriter Ronald Harwood wants to translate Márquez’s sense of longing, and director Mike Newell convincingly brings the verdant and sweaty setting to life, but something tells me we’re meant to have a little more emotional investment in these characters. As it is, it’s difficult to sympathize with Fermina when she decides, seemingly out of nowhere, to dump Florentino, or to follow his logic when he tries to justify bedding literally hundreds of women while waiting for Fermina to come around.
Is love a disease, as Marquez possibly wanted us to believe? Maybe, but in the case of this adaptation, it’s more of a laughing sickness.
*Others include inept old age makeup (Fermina at one point is supposed to be 80-something, yet has the smooth hands of a 20-year old) and the clumsy actor transition between the 28-year old Ugalde and the 40-ish Bardem.