The film tells the story of Florentino (Javier Bardem), who seeks solace in the arms of innumerable women after being separated from the love of his life, Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). The “magic” in their love is hinted when he doesn’t get the virus despite all the flings in the time of cholera.
The film is an adaptation of the novel by Gabriel García Márquez, and has somewhat an autobiographical feature as Márquez himself waited for 14 years to marry his wife.
The title itself implies a contrast between the impossible time for love, and love being the only beautiful thing in such a time. The symptoms of the disease are the same as falling in love.
Cholera is a deadly virus that is highly contagious through liquids. Sharing bodily fluids with 622 women without getting the virus is the magic in Florentino’s love.
The film is filled with water as a symbol of danger, such as the river or the rain. The ladies take a bath in the same tub. It is insane how reckless they are against this deadly plague. Florentino experiences his first intercourse in a ship, in the most humid and watery place possible. I would interpret all these elements as some sort of a death wish.
Other than water, bird is another significant symbol used within the film. It is used both for women and death. In the body of a prostitude, you may find life and death as well as love. The initial scene shows the death of Doctor Urbino somewhat because of a bird.
The tiara is a symbol of true love. You can give it to one person only, and that would be the love of your life. Fermina is Florentino’s only true love, regardless of all the other women he’s been with. It is also how we see that the doctor is in love with the other woman, and not Fermina.
Throughout the film, love comes hand in hand with danger. Either a cat’s attack, the house falling to pieces, or, obviously, the virus. They make love on the streets against the risk of getting caught. Florentina himself claims this is the only way to ease his pain.
The film is highly reflexive of Colombia during the time. Even if there wasn’t the cholera epidemic, the rotten world would be reminded by illegal activities such as smuggling and drug traffic during the Civil War.
The opium user gets super high but it is very deadly. Reminds you of something?
If Florentino is an unreliable narrator, it is not realistic for him to not get the virus after having intercourse with innumerable women in the time of cholera. It would make sense if he made it all up to cope with Fermina’s love. Besides, the fact that he is a writer would support the claim.
But, we don’t seek for a logical explanation as this is a magic realist film. Because love is a reason to life, and death wouldn’t mean a thing without it.