02 February 2009

Movielog, Love in the Time of Cholera

Love in the Time of Cholera, 2007
Written by Ronald Harwood
Based on the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Directed by Mike Newell
122 minutes

Sometimes when I watch a movie based on a novel, I find myself wanting to read the novel so that I can experience the richer world of the book or to simply learn more about the world of the wonderous cinematic experience. Other times, I find myself having a similar "read the book" response simply because I wonder just how fucked up the book must have been in the re-telling. I have not read Marquez's classic Love in the Time of Cholera, but the movie sucks.

Well, maybe that's a bit strong. I should say that the first half of the movie sucks. It recounts a very time-worn story of love at first sight between a young telegraph operator Florentino (Unax Ugalde as a youth and Javier Bardem as an adult)...

(An aside. This is a movie that covers over half a century and the old-age makeup varies in quality over the course of the film. That's forgivable from my perspective, as I honestly don't expect makeup artists to be able to make a thirty-year-old actress look eighty-five. But the filmmakers made the extremely odd decision to cast two actors as the young and old Florentino, while not doing the same for any other character. So for the first thirty minutes or so of the film, Florentino is portrayed by Unax Ugalde while for the next ninety he's portrayed by Javier Bardem. Even aside from the fact that Bardem is a vastly superior actor to Ugalde, the age difference is so striking that at first I wasn't even sure he was supposed to be playing the same character. The switch is made after some unspecified number of years has passed in the story, but it seems that it would have been easier to either recast some of the other parts, or to simply have Bardem "act young" towards the beginning of the film. It's a small detail, but it's the kind of thing that betrays a seeming lack of understanding of the filmmaking process that goes on throughout a viewing of Love in the Time of Cholera.)

...love at first sight between a young telegraph operator Florentino (Unax Ugalde as a youth and Javier Bardem as an adult) and a beautiful young woman Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno -- who is Italian, not Hispanic, and never seems quite beautiful enough to justify the obsession of the film's characters, but never mind). Fermina's father, played by John Leguizamo at his hammiest, believes that his beautiful daughter deserves a better station in life than as the wife of a poor telegraph operator, and moves his family out of the town in which they live in order to keep her away from her young suitor. Years later, she moves back into town and is approached by Florentino, who has remained obsessed with her all these years. He re-confesses his love for her, and she responds that she is sorry, but that she believes that their passionate but unconsummated affair of their youth was simply a mirage, an illusion.

Why? Well, the movie doesn't really tell us. Perhaps the book is better, but one of the major flaws of the film is that we never really get inside Fermina's head to any significant degree. She will go on to marry a wealthy doctor and philanthropist who is curing the region of cholera (Benjamin Bratt), and towards the end of the film describes him as "everything a woman could want in a husband" but her motives still remain unclear. Does she really love him? Why does she marry him? Why does she stay? How does she really feel about her long-lost love?

If Cholera is unclear as to the motives of Fermina it is obsessed with the feelings of Florentino. At first he promises fidelity to Fermina despite her disinterest in him, but after a bizarre (and, it must be said, entertaining) encounter on a riverboat with a mysterious young woman, he sublimates his desire for his unattainable love into a decades-long series of sexual encounters with random women in the streets. The film makes human comedy out of his love affairs, and it is here that it begins to work. The exploits of Florentino are sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, and genereally arousing, and one begins to wonder why he even cares about some passionate feelings he has for a woman he has barely seen in decades, when he seemingly has his pick of intelligent and passionate spitfires all around him.

Anyway. The movie goes on and there are plenty of mildly amusing subplots, and Florentino decides that he would like to become a man of means rather than a poor telegraph operator, and cameos by seemingly every bankable star with a name ending in "-o" are in evidence, but it all sort of ends up a mushy nothingness. There are isolated moments of quality that made me see what people saw in the material, but there's a curious lack of real passion to the film. Maybe magical realism just doesn't translate well to film.

The acting ranges from passable to quite good. Javier Bardem in particular is amazingly good, managing to give his role a kind of gravity that is lacking in the script, and comes out of the film basically unscathed. Mezzogiorno is okay but mostly lacks in intensity -- her best friend in the film is played by the alluring Catalina Sandino Moreno, who would probably have been a better choice to play the female lead. Hector Elizondo is amusing as Florentino's rich benefactor who gives him a job, and Bratt plays "rich handsome doctor-dude" about as well as anyone.

Overall, "eh." I really want to read the novel now, which is probably a success in itself no matter what the reason, but this really isn't a very compelling film experience. It's got some good scenes, a couple of good performances, and quite a few tit shots, but I really don't think this is anything like essential viewing. I have no particular desire to see it again. Completists for Bardem's work will probably be most entertained by this picture, the rest of us can give it a pass.

Rating: C-

No comments: