Where’s the love?

Love in the Time of Cholera

Love in the Time of Cholera Starring Javier Bardem, Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Benjamin Bratt. Directed by Mike Newell. Paradise Cinema 7. Rated R. (Ends Thurs., Dec. 13)
Rated 3.0

Although this prestigious-looking historical romance is drawn from one of the most esteemed works of Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, somehow nearly all of the wild tragicomic flavor of Márquez’s fiction has been pushed out of the picture.

Director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (winner of an Oscar for The Pianist) stick with the settings (Colombia in late 1880s), characters and basic premises of Márquez’s original. And they have Javier Bardem to play the story’s protagonist, Florentino Ariza, a man of modest origins who racks up 622 love affairs and brief flings over the course of a lifetime spent waiting for a reunion with the love of his life. He was forcibly separated in early adulthood from the upper-class Fermina.

All of that bears considerable interest, but a great deal of the Newell-Harwood version still comes across as a blandly conventional costume drama and period piece, with little in the way of passion or humor, and almost nothing at all of the paradoxically poetic fantasy ("magic realism") that is Márquez’s stylistic signature. Bardem seems well-suited to his role, but even his best efforts get somewhat dissipated in a production that appears to have taken several bewildering wrong turns on its way to the big screen.

Having the diverse and attractive cast speak in Spanish-accented English only magnifies the banal superficiality in Harwood’s screenplay. And the requirement that key characters age 40 or 50 years in the course of the tale creates problems that even the most skillful makeup artistry can’t overcome.

The callow posturing of Benjamin Bratt and John Leguizamo is even more glaring in these circumstances. Two of the older supporting players, Fernanda Montenegro and Hector Elizondo, and one of the youngest, Catalina Sandino Moreno, come to good terms with the material, but Giovanna Mezzogiorno, as Fermina, remains strangely two-dimensional.

Maybe only a writer-director of inspired eccentricity—a Pedro Almodóvar, or a Guillermo del Toro, or a Raoul Ruiz—could have satisfactorily transferred Love in the Time of Cholera to the screen. Or maybe it’s another of those literary masterpieces that is ultimately unfilmable.