Since Gabriel Garcia Marquez first published "Love in the Time of Cholera" internationally in 1988, he is said to have declined, much like a character in one of his books, something on the order of 50 offers to turn the novel into a film. Part of his reluctance to fork over the story to Hollywood apparently stemmed from his misgivings about subjecting one the greatest Spanish-language novels of the 20th century to an English-language adaptation. And after seeing what director Mike Newell and screenwriter Ronald Harwood have done to it, it's pretty clear that his fears were well-founded.
Producer Scott Steindorff has said in interviews that he won Garcia Marquez over by likening himself to Florentino Ariza, the obsessive suitor who falls in love with a woman he hardly knows and recommits himself to her even more fervently (soul, if not body) after she marries somebody else. The author must have found this either very persuasive or very funny. If Garcia Marquez's sly, swooning philosophical masterpiece is any indication, he doesn't just know how to fan poetic ardor, he knows how to mock it at the same time. That, after all these years of playing hard-to-get, the novel has made it to the screen in the form of a plodding, tone-deaf, overripe, overheated Oscar-baiting telenovela smacks of just the kind of deliciously ironic prank an 80-year-old Colombian Nobel laureate could really get behind.
"Love in the Time of Cholera" is an epic love story set mostly in an unnamed colonial Colombian port town. It concerns Ariza (Unax Ugalde and later Javier Bardem), a young telegraph clerk, the illegitimate son of a secret pawnbroker to society ladies in decline and the head of a shipping company, who falls in love at first sight with Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Fermina's father, Lorenzo (John Leguizamo), new in town and frustrated in his attempts to enter society, opposes the marriage, but Fermina lets herself be swept up in their epistolary romance. Lorenzo sends Fermina away to her cousin Hildebranda's (Catalina Sandino Moreno) house in the country, and Florentino waits for years. But upon her return she realizes suddenly that her feelings for him were just an illusion, and marries Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), the most eligible bachelor in town. Florentino pledges his eternal devotion and fidelity, and then goes on to have 622 affairs, flings and one-night stands, inadvertently causing the occasional murder-by-jealous-husband.
The story travels from the city into the jungle and across the ocean to Europe, spans more than 50 years from the end of the 19th century through the beginning of the 20th, and meticulously recreates historical detail, every political circumstance, every social strata. Garcia Marquez creates a singularly specific world, shaped by far-flung forces and buffed by local quirks. Newell and Harwood take all this and tosses it into a stew of pan-Latin generalizations, missing the tone of the book completely. They downplay class conflicts and ignore historical context, heat up the melodrama, tone down the humor and irrevocably tip the whole thing into culture-bending camp. They don't so much as allude to the causes of the civil war that rages in the post-Colonial era (the word for cholera in Spanish is the same as the word for rage).
The pan-Latin cast includes a mix of Latino Americans (Leguizamo, Hector Elizondo, Bratt), Latin Americans (Colombian Sandino Moreno and Brazilian Fernanda Montenegro), a Spaniard (Bardem) and an Italian (Mezzogiorno) all of whom are called upon to speak in Spanish-accented English. This has the unfortunate effect of catapulting Garcia Marquez's dry, deadpan humor into florid kitsch. You can't be wry and aloof and sound like Ricardo Montalban at the same time.
The gifted Bardem is dopey as the lovesick Florentino Daza (played by Ugalde in early scenes). He keeps his great, taurine head ducked and his back inverted like a parenthesis. But at least he displays flashes of humor that show he understands that while we're supposed to admire Florentino for his doomed dedication to his love-at-first-sight fantasy, a dedication that produces in him symptoms very similar to cholera at several points during the movie, we're also supposed to find him ridiculous.