Love in the Time of Cholera

Love in the Time of Cholera (2007)
New Line Home Entertainment
Cast: Javier Bardem, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Benjamin Bratt
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentary, Deleted Scenes

Mike Newell's "Love in the Time of Cholera" is an adaptation of critically acclaimed novelist Gabriel García Márquez's 1985 novel about a decades' long romantic obsession. The story begins in Cartagena, Colombia in 1879, as the young Florentino Ariza (Unax Ugalde) sets eyes on the lovely Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). Fermina is the daughter of a wealthy mule driver (John Leguizamo) who rejects the lower-class Florentino. The young lovers pass letters to each other in secrecy until he finally proposes to her. Enraged by her acceptance, her father ends their relationship by taking her to another city. Florentino awaits her return, vowing to remain a virgin for her.

Upon her return to the Cartagena several years later, Fermina rejects Florentino's (played as an adult by Javier Bardem) advances, saying that their young love was only an illusion. She eventually marries a notable doctor, Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), at her father's urging. Undeterred, Florentino steadfastly holds on to his love, asserting that he will wait for her husband to die in order to woo her again. His mother (Fernanda Montenegro) encourages him to see other women, even going so far as to invite a nearby widow to share his bed, in order to cure him of his obsession. In time, he breaks his vow of celibacy and engages in literally hundreds of sexual relationships during roughly the next forty years, but his burning passion for Fermina never ends, even as her marriage prospers.

The historical backdrop for the film spans the years between 1879 and the mid 1930s, as the infectious disease cholera spreads throughout South America. The disease becomes a metaphor for Florentino's ongoing love, as he is emotionally afflicted and literally suffers for her throughout his life. Indeed, it is the belief that she is suffering from cholera that first brings Fermina and Dr. Juvenal together. The rich, South American landscape itself, plagued by war and disease yet fertile in exotic vegetation and animal life, provides a visual representation of the characters' tumultuous heartaches and passions.

The screenplay was penned by Ronald Harwood, who is certainly no stranger to working with beloved or unusual source material, having adapted such varied works as "Oliver Twist" and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." This film is built on a flashback structure that works considerably well, though what transpires within that flashback is not developed so satisfactorily. The very essence of the story rests on the foundation of the initial romance between the teenage characters, and if this is not believable, then the epic saga that unfolds loses all credibility. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens, as the early romance is not given the development or gravity needed to support Florentino's later obsession. The relationship between the lovers consists primarily of passing letters to one another until he actually proposes, but there is no intimacy beyond that. There is no justification for why he spends the next 60 years of his life waiting for her to be free again, and as a result, we never buy into the story or its various subplots.

This is certainly no fault of the actors, who all give exceedingly fine performances. The three leads are perfectly cast, especially Giovanna Mezzogiorno, a 32-year-old actress who must convincingly age from about 16 to 75 within the course of the film. Sprinkled throughout are a number of excellent supporting players in brief roles, including Liev Schreiber, Hector Elizondo, Catalina Sandino Moreno, and Laura Harring. The international roster of actors brings considerable flavor to the film, and the characters are a joy to watch. Fernanda Montenegro gives perhaps the most touching performance as Florentino's mother, whose love for her son leads her to often strange but heartfelt actions.

It is a handsome production to be sure, with sumptuous location photography, period costumes, and music. The exotic Colombian atmosphere is evocative and spellbinding, but it is all essentially wasted on a romance that fails to generate any sense of mystery or energy. I am actually somewhat torn over recommending this film, as there is certainly much to appreciate, but the connecting thread is never convincing. The film is not boring, and there are some well placed moments of humor, but the central relationship achieves only surface-level emotions that are not worth the epic scope of the production or the fine work of the people involved.

The film has been released by New Line Home Entertainment in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The anamorphically enhanced image is beautiful, with rich color saturation and deep black levels. Grain and digital artifacts are not noticeable. At times the picture is a bit soft, but aside from this the transfer captures the film's visual splendor. The cinematography by Affonso Beato is one of the movie's reigning virtues, and it is done full justice here.

The audio is given a solid presentation in a Dolby Digital 5.1 track that highlights the original songs by Shakira that are featured throughout. Ambience and the sounds from crowd scenes benefit nicely from the surround, but the majority of the sound is pushed toward the front speakers. Voices come through naturally. There is also an English stereo track. I am surprised by the lack of a Spanish-language track, given the film's Colombian setting and interest for Latino viewers, but there are English and Spanish subtitles.

A feature-length audio commentary is provided by director Mike Newell. While he tends to retreat into narrating much of the time, he offers some interesting tidbits about the production here and there. He also has a tendency to gush about the actors.

A 30-minute making-of documentary provides a better-than-average look into the production, with extensive interviews with Newell, Ronald Harwood, and other cast and crew members. Many aspects of the production are discussed, including the debate over shooting the film in English or Spanish. Most intriguing was the decision to shoot on location in Colombia, scrapping initial plans to shoot in Brazil, after the Colombian Vice President called the producers personally to let them know that it would be outrageous to shoot anywhere else.

Rounding out the disc are 17 deleted scenes and a trailer. The deleted scenes last a total of 18 minutes and feature optional commentary by film editor Mick Audsley.

While touted as a prestigious literary adaptation, "Love in the Time of Cholera" fails to live up to the widespread acclaim of Gabriel García Márquez's novel or to the talent of its cast. For the lush production values and fine performances, the film might be worth a look, but this is not a romance for the ages. It was a project teeming with possibilities, but Newell and Harwood completely missed the mark with this one, turning a complex love story into a superficial period film with no heart or heat.