Love In The Time Of Cholera
When adapting a novel as magnificent and as stuffed with brilliant set pieces as Gabriel García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, a screenwriter is tempted simply to pluck out the most memorable incidents from the book and string them together like charms on a bracelet. To resist such temptation, the scenarist must remember that these incidents were memorable in the first place only because they were so firmly embedded in a milieu of characters the reader knew intimately and a narrative that the reader wanted to follow each step of the way. To extract the incidents from that context is like pulling fish out of water-soon they are lifeless.
Unfortunately, screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) and director Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco) did not resist that temptation in adapting Cholera. Unable to fit the entire book into a movie, they chose to shoot their favorite scenes from the novel and to ditch all the character development that made the scenes special.
A key turning point in the novel is when the 17-year-old Fermina Daza comes back to Cartagena, Colombia, after being dragged off into the Colombian interior by her father to keep her away from her would-be teenage fiancé, Florentino Ariza. In the book, García Márquez describes clearly how Fermina grows more independent and self-assured on the family's jungle plantation, while Florentino grows ever more lovesick in the city, even hatching a doomed plan to rescue a sunken Spanish galleon in the harbor.
When the young girl finally returns to her hometown, she plunges into the local marketplace, her senses discovering a new sense of reality in each booth of spices or fabrics. Meanwhile, Florentino shadows her from a distance, so lost in his romantic obsession that the booths don't even exist for him. When he finally summons up the courage to confront her, she realizes that "what is between us is nothing more than an illusion." The reader registers both the lifted burden of her epiphany and the staggering blow of his shock.
In the movie, though, you register very little. The screenplay dispenses with Fermina's changes in the jungle and Florentino's deepening fixation, then truncates the market scene until it resembles a chance encounter more than a long-awaited climax. And when Fermina declares an end to the romance, her decision feels arbitrary, because there's no context to explain it.
So it is with most of the crucial moments in the story. Whether it's Fermina's (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) engagement to Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), Juvenal's affair with a black divorcée, Florentino's (Javier Bardem as an adult, Unax Ugalde as a teen) hundreds of substitute lovers, his mother's (Fernanda Montenegro) madness, or the cholera epidemic raging in the background, each scene provides the payoff without the setup. It doesn't help that Bardem captures the buffoonish aspects of Florentino, that tragic clown, but not his angst. And Mezzogiorno is far too bland as Fermina to exert the same effect on us that she presumably has on Florentino. The big-budget production and cinematographer Affonso Beato evoke the lush landscapes and exotic streetscapes of Colombia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but Harwood's script gives us little reason to care.