One of the most beloved literary classics of the 20th century -- and rightfully so -- the 1985 novel Love in the Time of Cholera by the Colombian-born Gabriel García Márquez made its first cinematic appearance in 2001. In Peter Chelsom's Serendipity, it was the book in which the playful Sara (Kate Beckinsale) wrote her name and phone number, in the hopes that her would-be lover Jonathan (John Cusack) would find it. He spends years searching for it, flipping through every copy of the book that he can find. That movie doesn't have many fans, but I'm fond of it, and in a way, it's truer to the spirit of Márquez's novel than Mike Newell's more straightforward movie adaptation that opens in theaters this week. Whereas Chelsom's film attempted to capture the feel of the novel, Newell's film attempts nothing more than a translation.

That's a big problem right there. The novel was originally written in Spanish, and though the English translation is quite beautiful, it's still a translation. The new movie is filmed in English, so it's an adaptation of a translation. Then, we have a director from England, Mike Newell, who has absolutely no cultural connection to the Caribbean, where the story is set. Of course, no director could perfectly, accurately represent the novel on the screen, but it's possible to start from a slightly better vantage point. On top of that, the story takes place over fifty years, which in a novel is no problem. But in a movie it requires layers of age makeup, a process that, as movie technology gets better and better, seems to get worse and worse (imagine how awful this will look on HD-DVD or Blu-Ray six months from now). And, on an emotional level, stories that cover that kind of immense time span tend to leave out life's most innocuous, but telling and truthful, moments in favor of great plot lurches and story highlights. It becomes like a Reader's Digest "condensed novel."


Javier Bardem plays Florentino Ariza, the slightly awkward but practical young man who falls for Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and waits for her for over half a century. During that time, because of family conflicts, Fermina marries Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt). While Florentino waits for their nuptial ties to unravel either by death or divorce, he watches his fortunes grow and becomes a lover extraordinaire, so accomplished in bed that Hugh Hefner would tip his hat. Oddly, the movie chooses to cast another actor (Unax Ugalde) as the young Florentino, then slathers him in makeup to give him something closer to Bardem's blocky face; he looks like the Elephant Man. (How Fermina could fall for this beast in the early parts of the film is a mystery.) Meanwhile, Miss Mezzogiorno is expected to carry the entire fifty years all by herself, without the benefit of younger or older look-alikes. Both actors struggle with the age aspect; Bardem tries to act gawky and awkward while young, and in old age, both make various attempts to be creaky and stooped. None of it works, and the actors only appear vaguely comfortable during the middle section, and closer to their own real ages. (Mezzogiorno is 33 and Bardem is 38.)

Yet, in spite of all these layers of problems, the journeyman Newell gives the movie a very welcome light touch, as opposed to the severe, reverential approach that, say, Merchant-Ivory would have brought to such an important novel. After all, the story is slightly absurd and slightly magical, and Newell seems to understand that (perhaps it helps that he just came off of a Harry Potter movie). He keeps it sunny and a bit goofy: in one sequence, working as a letter-reader and letter-writer for the illiterate peasants, Florentino serves a man and a woman in love with one another and winds up writing letters to himself! In another, when Dr. Urbino unexpectedly pays a call, Florentino attempts to keep his cool, but allows himself a few seconds of panic while searching through a drawer.

Aside from the makeup troubles, Bardem manages to keep a wry smile behind his line readings, as if he were amused by the whole charade. He grows more and more comfortable with his seductions, and his ease and confidence rubs off on us. Likewise, the casting of the slightly loony John Leguizamo as Fermina's father and the easygoing Bratt as Fermina's lawful husband makes the movie more relaxed and lively. However, these small points are only an oasis in a sea of troubles. Marquez's work is huge, passionate, amazing and magical, and it's difficult for movies to capture all that without resorting to spectacle or bombast. Newell gets points for approaching it with calmness and confidence, but I suspect that the true man for the job should have been Alfonso Cuaron (another Harry Potter vet), whose collective films embody broad humor, erotic passion and magical realism as well as a beautiful intimacy. As with Serendipity, Cuaron might have found a device to get closer to the essence of Florentino and Fermina without letting all that makeup get in the way.