Handled With Carelessness

Posted November 15, 2007 in Film

The first time 24-year-old Florentino Ariza (Javier Bardem) wept over a girl, his mother (Fernanda Montenegro) smiled and told him to enjoy his pain and suffering, as strong emotions don’t last a lifetime. Only for him, they did, and he continued bawling over Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiomo) for 51 years, 9 months, and 4 days—until the night her husband Dr. Urvino (Benjamin Bratt) died trying to catch a parrot. If moms hadn’t gone crazy and died, she might have advised the lovesick Florentino that you shouldn’t propose to a widow before her husband is in the ground. But then nothing about their romance was ordinary. 

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s sweeping historical novel about an infatuation that burned for half a century in war and disease-torn Columbia is seen by sentimentalists as a paean to true love, and by cynics as stalking. Young Florentino (Unax Ugalde), an illegitimate telegraph delivery boy, wrote Fermina a book-length love letter before they’d even spoke. The innocent girl fell for him, too, but her father Lorenzo (John Leguizamo), a mule trader with grand aspirations, ordered them apart. Fermina married a manly doctor and tried to move on; Florentino pined. Mike Newell’s big budget adaptation sides with the softies—it’s all yodeling Shakira ballads and emotional shots of the would-be lovers staring at each other until their cheeks pale from exhaustion—but leaves the audience wanting to file a restraining order against Bardem. Currently starring as a single-minded murderer in the new Coen Bros drama, the Spanish actor beings the same frightening obsession to his struggling Romeo. No matter how many other women he beds (the last tally was 622), his monomania for the headstrong beauty with the gray eyes only intensifies. Oddly, over the five-decade course of the film, Bardem’s Chaplinesque lothario with his bowler hat and bottomless eyes seems to age twice as fast as everyone else as though he had progeria. Bardem is a fine actor, but the impossible demands of spinning Marquez’s magical realism into a Hollywood blockbuster force him to make a burlesque of growing old. As a horny senior citizen, he thrusts into his younger mistresses like his hips have Parkinson’s. 

We’re presumed to root for Fermina to break herself off a piece of that? Her doctor husband, Bratt’s confident, Clark Gable aura is heaps more appealing. Instead, our best options are snorting at Leguizamo’s street thug accent (born in Columbia, he moved to Queens at four) and smiling at Marquez’s clever one-liners. When Florentino asks his uncle how he became wealthy, he corrects him saying, “I am not rich—I am a poor man with money.” But when not quoting him directly, Newell’s film has mishandled Marquez’s entire book. Visually, it’s drained his vivid Columbia to gray and sea foam green and cut out anything morally ambiguous—the 14-year-old girl who commits suicide after 75-year-old Florentino seduces and dumps her is now a college girl who throws a temper tantrum. We’re never allowed to think Florentino might be mad, and he himself now never questions his life’s fixation—he’s merely a mechanical rabbit running towards the finish line. Marquez has warned readers “not to fall into my trap” of sweeping, saccharine goo but Newell has stumbled right in. When an aged Florentino tells Fermina that love is a state of grace, she softens, though the whole point of the story is that she’s the only one who knows what love is—while he was crying himself to sleep at night like a middle-schooler under a poster of Zach Efron, Fermina was in the trenches of love, bearing children, sharing dinners, cheering each other’s triumphs, and dealing with her husband’s affair. She knows love’s struggles and love’s compromises; he only knows the pain and poetry. There’s neither magic nor realism in Newell’s vision of romance, just a creepy old man with a preteen’s heart. 


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