In Columbia at the turn of the last century, a young man named Florentino (Javier Bardem) falls in love, at first sight, with the beautiful Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). New to the town, she is guarded jealously by her merchant father (John Leguizamo), who wishes her to marry a wealthy man and gain respectability. Shy Florentino, prodded by his clucking mother, starts to write elaborate love-letters to his beloved, hiding them around the town. But on the day he was to ask for her hand in marriage, her father finds out about the affair, and sends Fermina to the mountains to live with her cousin Hildebranda (Catalina Sandino Moreno). The young couple’s untried love cannot survive the separation, and years later when Fermina returns, she has moved on. After a short courtship, conducted over her sick-bed, she marries the local doctor (Benjamin Bratt). Distraught, Florentino throws himself into a lengthy series of casual affairs, noting each new conquest in a little black book, but his heart remains forever unrequited.
Javier Bardem, who won the Oscar for his unforgettable Anton Chigurh in another literary adaptation, No Country For Old Men, does well initially with his disappointed suitor, his flat, steam-iron face and drooping eyes communicating an endless well of lovelorn misery. Later, however, Florentino loses our sympathy; a combination of his innate selfishness, laughable make-up and narrative tedium. Mezzogiorno, for all her early spirit and flashes of vulnerability, suffers a similar fate, established as a romantic ideal and then abandoned in the story as a prop.
The film is well photographed in that lush, golden light of the tropics, but Newell cannot find any poetry in his imagery. His production is handsome, but unremarkable. His pacing is steady but too slow. The absence of touch reduces the romance to a train of connectable developments, a slowly deadening trawl through one man’s self-absorption, buoyed occasionally by moments of lively smut and delicate absurdity.
Newell and his screenwriter Ronald Harwood have taken this classic of magic realism and somewhere along the way, forgotten the magic. Perhaps it got lost in the desire to cram the best of a fabulously complicated story into a running time just shy of two and a half hours. It could be the distractingly unconvincing make-up techniques used to age the actors fifty years. Maybe it’s the clumsy dialogue or the evaporating secondary cast (including Liev Schreiber, briefly), who come and go in the background without registering. In the end, it might be just the fundamental, literary nature of the source material. Any one of these problems would have damaged the film. All of them together scuttle it completely.