Oh, it seems churlish and petty not to praise this movie to the heavens. But I can’t do it. I just can’t.
Visually, it’s luscious. Its reproduction of the city of Cartageña, Colombia, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is ripe with urban urgency and the promise of the technological transformation the whole world was on the brink of then; Alfonso Beato’s (Dark Water, View from the Top) cinematography is warm and spicy and almost a character in itself. The music, by Antonio Pinto (Lord of War), is ardent and expressive and puts a delicate underscore on the tempestuous tale unfolding onscreen.
There’s more: Star Javier Bardem, whose oddly handsome face becomes something twisted and ugly in the Coen Brothers’ new film, No Country for Old Men, is here luminous and beautiful and heartfelt as a man whose heart, broken in adolescence, never mends. His costar, Italian actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno as the forever out-of-reach object of his desire, is magnificent as a woman who denies her desire her whole life, subverts it down a path it was not meant to tread. And of course, director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Mona Lisa Smile) is working from the universally acclaimed novel from the Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez.
With so many pieces of the puzzle seemingly so perfect, how could anything go wrong? Yet it does, at least for me, because first and foremost I feel a movie, and it seems to me that particularly in this case — in the case of a story about unfathomable heartache and love denied and happiness put off and all that emotional turmoil — you need to feel it. If you don’t feel it, what’s the point?
And I don’t feel it. I tried. I really did. I wanted to get lost in the long, strange, nonrelationship of Bardem’s Florentino Ariza (young Unax Ugalde plays him as a teen, and he’s wonderful, too), a telegraph clerk, and Mezzogiorno’s Fermina Daza, daughter of a wealthy merchant with societal aspirations for his family via his daughter’s marriage. Dad (John Leguizamo [Land of the Dead, Assault on Precinct 13], also fantastic, if in a harsh, menacing way) does everything he can to keep them apart, and succeeds, and still the story goes on as Florentino descends into a lifelong despair he wallows in and takes meaning from, and Fermina blocks off that aspect of her heart and makes a more practical match in another direction.
I don’t know why it doesn’t work for me. The film snob in me wants to suggest that perhaps the choice to tell this story in English, rather than in its original Spanish, could be part of the problem. (I was stunned to discover, as the film began, that it was not subtitled, though I understand the business reasons why that decision was made: most moviegoers don’t want to read a movie.) I don’t speak or read Spanish, but I’ve heard it said that there’s a palpable poeticism and even wit to the phrase “love in the time of cholera” in Spanish that is utterly lost in the translation, and perhaps that’s true of the entire story. Perhaps there’s something inherently “Spanish” about these people and their situation that fails to come across in English. Not that I, or most other moviegoers, would have understood what they were saying were they speaking Spanish, of course, but it’s not inconceivable that the entire structure of their emotions and the influence acting in another language could have had on the actors might have resulted in a very different movie.
Or maybe this is a story that simply is not adaptable to film. Perhaps it’s too internal — or perhaps the choices Newell and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (Oliver Twist, Being Julia) made in bringing that internality out in the open were poor ones. Florentino, for instance, copes with his heartache by indulging in brief, random sexual flings with as many women as he can: he keeps count in a little book. But I never really understood exactly how he feels about his escapades, how he feels about these women. It seems like that, right there, is what should be at the emotional core of the character — whether he feels nothing, feels something, or feels a lot would each be important — but there’s precious little here that’s illustrative of his inner life. “Love is the only thing that interests me,” he says many, many years into his self-imposed internal exile, but we never have enough evidence to decide whether he’s telling an honest truth about himself, whether he’s deluded about how he really feels, or whether he’s being ironic, either intentionally or unintentionally so.
What’s more universal than being miserable in love? It shouldn’t be all that difficult to make us feel that — because we’ve all felt it in our own lives — and yet it simply isn’t here, not that I can see.