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Javier's Illusion

Magical realist novel almost hits one right note


The famed 1985 magical realist novel Love in the Time of Cholera, by Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, gets an ambitious but off-key cinematic adaptation that trips up except in the casting of Javier Bardem as its romantically enthusiastic protagonist. British director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) works from a script by Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) to tell the epochal story of Florentino Ariza, a young poet living in turn-of-the-century Cartagena, Columbia, who falls hopelessly in love with a girl named Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). Fermina's protective father (John Leguizamo) facilitates her rushed marriage to Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), a European-educated aristocrat, thereby dooming Florentino to swear a lasting love that waits busily for the doctor's death in order to reclaim his true love. But when the momentous event finally occurs some 51 years later, Fermina takes torrential offense at Florentino's vulgar attempt at cashing in on his vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love. "Don't show your face again for the years of life that are left to you; I hope there are very few of them." Fermina's hostile rebuke sets off the film's flashback progression that eventually makes some sense of the grotesque title.

The current tendency toward magical realist films demonstrates a deeper reach for escapism than common film genres present. Movies like The Martian Child, Lars and the Real Girl, Wristcutters: A Love Story, Slipstream, The Darjeeling Limited, Atonement and even Todd Haynes ode to Bob Dylan I'm Not There all share magical realist themes that go beyond their geographical and cultural context toward a universal element of inexplicable imagination.

It's not a far reach to conjecture that our current geopolitical and ecological predicaments have cornered some filmmakers into searching for unequivocal truths to supplement a reality strained by devastation and doom. A significant element of magical realist texts is the responsibility they put on the reader or viewer to decode the material. Love in the Time of Cholera makes its first demand for ciphering via a juxtaposed title that pits a subjective emotional experience against a haunting plague—interject any kind of war against humanity.

Although Florentino and Fermina are in love, the capitalist demand for greed decrees that she must marry a cad who will eventually cheat on her. An important irony lies in Florentino's incessant substitution of heartbreak that causes him to seek sexual refuge at every opportunity for the 50 years that he waits for Fermina. Florentino's assertation to Fermina's papa that "there is no greater glory than to die for love" mutates into keeping count of his carnal conquests (well over 600 before he attempts to reunite with Fermina). The fidelity that he swears finds more devotion to his own transcendent stamina. Mostly, there are bawdy laughs to be had over Florentino's slapstick sexual connections that occur in alleys, parlors and on boats. The character's visible need to be loved proves to be a powerful aphrodisiac for attracting female partners, but the filmmakers miss the mark on keeping an suitable tone the way Spike Jonze did with Being John Malkovich, a near-perfect example of a magical realist film. The winky-wink casting of actors like Benjamin Bratt, John Leguizamo and Liev Schreiber in secondary roles distracts from the story's momentum and takes the viewer out of the movie regardless of the quality of their performances.

The film works best when Florentino exerts his poetic skill to write love poems for inarticulate lovers as a side business. He's most fulfilled when enticing romantic commitment between others with rhymes that hit you with the full force of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's inflamed writing style. If you want to get the woof and warp of Love in the Time of Cholera, you'll have to read the book. That said, Javier Bardem's intoxicating performance is reason enough to see the movie.