A visual feast, Cholera serves a tasty appetizer and a delectable, if bittersweet, dessert. But the many, many courses in between feel rushed and perfunctory. It's as though Newell and collaborators didn't want to omit a single ingredient from the beloved book but lacked time and money to fully prepare them.
The story's themes, hard to mine from the choppy movie, are that of romantic versus rational love and spiritual versus sexual connection.
Florentino (Unax Ugalde as a youth, Javier Bardem as a man) is the romantic, a poetic clerk who sees the lovely Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and swoons. Juvenal (Benjamin Bratt), a physician, medically treats Fermina (suspected of having contracted cholera) and is attracted to her. With her almond eyes and rosebud mouth, who wouldn't be?
For Florentino, man of letters, love is a contagion inflaming his core of being. (Not unlike cholera, which during the 1880s was epidemic in Europe and the Americas.) Love inspires Florentino to express his passion in the purplest and ripest of language. He submits to love, doesn't want to be cured. But for Juvenal, the man of science, cholera can be defended against, treated, cured.
With economy Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) introduces each side of this romantic triangle with Fermina as the hypotenuse. The effect Fermina has on each man is transparently clear.
While Florentino's letters stir something deep in Fermina's young heart, Juvenal's physical examination stirs something in her nether regions. Is this why she accepts the doctor's marriage proposal and rejects the poet's?
As one unfamiliar with the novel, I found it hard to tease out its meaning from this handsomely mounted, well-acted, aggressively elliptical adaptation.
Once I surrendered to its telegraphic narrative, I responded as I might to a novella - as in soap opera - on Spanish-language television. Although most of the actors here, including an almost unrecognizable Hector Elizondo, are Hispanophone, the film is in English. The tale is diverting, likewise the performances by Mezzogiorno and Bratt, if not resonant.
Over the film the magnificent Spanish actor Bardem, who is in every other movie these days (catch him as the angel of death in No Country for Old Men) ages a half century, 51 years and nine months, to be precise.
Bardem's hypnotic presence, like that of an Easter Island statue come to life, is one of the film's many pleasures. As is its intimations of a love everlasting.
Love in the Time of Cholera **1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Mike Newell. With Javier Bardem, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Benjamin Bratt, Fernanda Montenegro and John Leguizamo.
Running time: 2 hours, 18 mins.
Parents' guide: R (nudity, sexual candor, sex)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or email@example.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/