Review: “Cholera” gets lost in translation

Crudely distilled from the novel of the same name, “Love in the Time of Cholera,” like freshman dorm moonshine, proves a bit hard to swallow.

The faithfulness to the original material, so often posed as a measure, is moot. The final and most important evaluation simply asks whether it works as a movie. In this case, the answer is, “Not well.”

Over two hours in length, the interpretation of Gabriel García Márquez’ well received 1985 work delivers a base concoction of childish puppy love, buffoonish sex, and poorly integrated street scenes of unidentified populations variously trapped by war and a fatal epidemic.

Marquez’ concern over his story’s translation to the screen was unfortunately prophetic.

At the center of this tale lies romance — the tendency to prioritize the yearnings of the heart in a manner foreign to our day and age, making the translation even more difficult.

This old-fashioned love first blooms in the heart of Florentino Ariza (Javier Bardem), a humble telegraph clerk, living in an unnamed Caribbean sea-town at the end of the 19th century.

Florentino, a gawky and homely young man, still without jade in matters of affection, finds himself smitten by a comely young woman, Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), who within the appropriate decorum of the age, indicates a like interest.

The impediments to a match, made difficult by the rules of courtship and unlikely by his lowly station, only excite the pair. Her father, a roughly hewn, rags-to-riches mule merchant, wants his daughter to marry into a status that money alone cannot bring. Florentine cannot provide such, but he does possess an exceptional skill—writing love letters.

His exquisite missives of passion, secretly passed through the hands of servants, permit the would-be lovers to permeate the boundaries that custom and her father place between them. The inspiration of Florentino’s prose, we come to find, actually surpasses that of his actual presence.

Passionate and defiant, Fermina will not be deterred, the violent threats from her father only serving to encourage her. To defeat what he sees as a looming disaster for his daughter, he moves her out of town for a period, where she becomes exposed to other tastes and unexposed to her current muse.

Arriving back in town, approached by Florentino in person, she finds her desire has cooled. Following her father’s wishes she enters a strategic and practical union with a well respected physician. A not unhandsome man, Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), lacks the passion and invention of her first love, but assures that she will live in style and comfort.

Florentino, shattered, finds emotional refuge in nursing and embracing his heartbreak, stubbornly holding a place open in his heart for his love’s return. Although he vows to remain celibate, he loses his virginity through a rape and finds sex a pleasurable distraction. So much so, he pursues this new sport as though seeking a world record for carnal encounters.

As the story progresses, in their lives apart, neither character displays the qualities that at one moment seemed so worthy of the other’s ardor. But it is Florentino, who at front stage, having put compassion away for safekeeping, reveals a callousness hidden behind a magnetic guile—a marked indifference toward the welfare of the women he encounters.

The movie, as the book, opens with the death of anaged Dr. Urbino, then Fermina’s husband of several decades. Florentine, having waited for over 50 years, comes to the widow, still in mourning and pledges his love anew.

The writing of Marquez mixes metaphor, ironies, and sophisticated literary insinuations and nuance. To merely extract the plot and the primary elements leaves behind the blend, which is really the story.

The translation to the screen for a piece like this required the most deft of hand, and a particular sensibility, with which few filmmakers are blessed. There seems little in director Mike Newell’s portfolio that suggests a strategy behind his selection; however given the pigeon-holing tendencies of Hollywood, that should not have automatically excluded him.

Perhaps it was an insurmountable task—the extraction of a work built in and inseparable from the medium in which it was created, impossible to realize on the screen.

Grade D

Lester Gray reviews movies for Read reviews by all of Examiner's reviewers.

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