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Love in the Time of Cholera (R) **1/2

by Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald

Gabriel García Márquez’s epic romantic novel is a moving, transcendent tragedy with a finale thrilling enough to induce bouts of weeping, but Mike Newell’s film adaptation feels more like comedy than drama and falls short of its lofty origins. There’s no sense of sweeping heartbreak here, and, perhaps because of the story’s old-fashioned pace and plot, too many cheap laughs have wormed their way into what should be a stately melodrama. Even the animated opening credits indicate we should not take any of this too seriously.

 Love in the Time of Cholera traces the enduring emotions of Florentino Ariza (Javier Bardem) for the lovely Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), with whom he has been smitten since his days as a lowly telegraph operator in late 19th century Colombia.

 Fermina at first returns his affection, but her crude father (John Leguizamo) has ambitious social aspirations, and a telegraph clerk does not fit into his plans, even if the ardent young man in question is devoted enough to remain chaste until he can be united with his true love. A more acceptable mate for Fermina, Papa believes, is Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), whom Fermina eventually marries. She bears his children and dutifully settles into her place in Colombian society — though not without regrets — while a shaken Florentino, making up for lost time, beds every woman in Cartagena, taking detailed notes on them. And still he longs for Fermina.

 The ruggedly handsome Bardem, who also stars as a much less sentimental fellow in No Country for Old Men, which also opens today, makes an unlikely virgin. But the extremely talented actor, who managed to bring electric vitality to his role as a quadriplegic in The Sea Inside, makes his transformation from awkward innocent to connoisseur of female flesh wholly believable, his lust barely masking the sorrow in his heart. The makeup artists deserve a nod for the way in which Bardem seamlessly moves from late youth to middle, then old age. Fermina’s transformation is less successful; at the end of the film, when Fermina says she’s 72, you may snigger. Italian actress Mezzogiorno is clearly in her 30s, and her ineffective old-age makeup robs much of the pathos from the film’s bittersweet ending.

 Maybe director Newell (Pushing Tin, Mona Lisa Smile, Four Weddings and a Funeral) is more comfortable with lighter fare, but he doesn’t quite know when to lay off the giggles, most of which arise from Florentino’s endless quest for sex. Nor does screenwriter Ron Harwood (The Pianist) know when to quit; he unnecessarily has Fermina repeat the novel’s breathtaking final line. Sometimes less truly is more, and Love in the Time of Cholera is proof.

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