Raised without a father by his mother, Transito Ariza, played by Brazilian stage star Fernanda Montenegro, Florentino has no real prospects or ambition, but he is driven by an intensely passionate poet’s heart. Unfocussed and dreamy, he attempts to make contact with Fermina Daza through a series of passionate letters. By the time she becomes caught up in the romance, Florentino has already committed his heart’s purest fidelity to her.
A lengthy search for an actor to embody the layered, fiery and often circumspect character of Fermina Daza from adolescence to old age led the filmmakers to young Italian star Giovanna Mezzogiorno, who has garnered acclaim and numerous acting awards for her performances in European films such as Don’t Tell and Facing Windows.
“Her beauty is breathtaking, but beneath the youthful skin is a wise and committed actress,” says Newell. “This role would be a huge challenge for anyone, but Giovanna handled the pressure with grace and tremendous focus and creativity. It was extraordinary to watch her grow with Fermina.”
In order to tackle such a consuming role, the actress felt the need to start from scratch and re-learn everything she knew about acting. “Javier Bardem, Benjamin Bratt and I, along with Mike Newell, our director, became very close throughout this journey,” explains Mezzogiorno. “We helped each other and supported each other. They are so fantastic at what they do and were so kind to me. If I did the role justice it’s because they were here. I hope to be in harmony with what they did, which was amazing.”
Fermina’s father brings her to Cartageña with the express ambition of marrying her into one of the grand families of the region – not letting her be swept off her feet by a penniless clerk. Colombian-born actor John Leguizamo plays Lorenzo Daza, a mule trader with connections into Colombia’s underworld. “He is a father from poor beginnings, a mule trader, and he makes himself crazy over his desire for his daughter to marry well,” says Leguizamo. “He’s taking care of the jewel of his life, which is his daughter. She’s the only thing he’s got left, so there is a protectiveness and jealousy. And when he sees that she is flirting with the wrong guy – the poet who is going to be broke – that’s just not a part of his plan. He wants his daughter to marry the richest, most famous and upstanding socialite in town, and that’s the kind of guy he is.”
To ensure Fermina stays far away from Florentino, Lorenzo takes her on an arduous mule ride to live with relatives deep in the Colombian countryside – but Fermina and Florentino find a way to continue their affair through secret telegraphs. But the promise of a life together dies when Fermina returns to Cartageña fully a woman, and discovers that the dream of their love is very different from the reality.
But Florentino will never let go. “Florentino Ariza waits almost his whole life to get close to the woman he’s in love with,” says Bardem. “He represents the ultimate love, the ultimate need of sharing love with somebody in a very peculiar, deep and pure way. Through the journey of a whole life trying to find this person, he has a lot of different experiences. Some are fun, some are sad, some are difficult, some are easy, but at the end, he can never forget this person. His struggle is with his own faith that some day, maybe, he will have a chance to get close to her.”
“The characters of Gabriel García Márquez are very intense, very interesting and epic,” comments Mezzogiorno. “They do things in life that a lot of people would not do in ten lives, so the intensity of those characters is a big challenge for an actor.”
Instead of the heartsick poet, Fermina agrees to marry one of the city’s most prominent figures, a European-educated doctor who has poured his experience and refinement into the betterment of the city – Dr. Juvenal Urbino. “Consciously or not, Fermina has denied her own heart while fulfilling everything her father wanted of her,” says Newell. “Her heart is one of the most inscrutable in the story. She is fiercely independent, denying everything anyone attempts to thrust upon her, but somehow her own decisiveness and strong will subvert her desire for happiness.”