In the new Coen brothers film, "No Country For Old Men," he plays an emotionless psychopathic killer. Released simultaneously and sometimes in the same theater is "Love in the Time of Cholera," featuring Bardem as the super-sensitive, gentle poet/lover of the celebrated Gabriel Garcia Márquez novel. It is impossible to imagine these two characters living in the same world, much less in the same actor.
"Cholera" has Bardem's Florentino Ariza aging 50 years (although played by Unax Ugalde as a teenager). A poor boy in 1879 South America, Ariza is struck by a lightning bolt of love when he beholds the beautiful, high-born, Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). Although he proposes marriage, her nouveau riche father, Lorenzo (John Leguizamo), will hear nothing of it, pushing her into a union with an affluent doctor, Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt).
Ariza makes a lifelong commitment to wait for Daza to be single again. However, we're not talking abstinence. Over the course of five decades, Ariza has quickie affairs with 623 women. In one instance, he is raped on a riverboat by an unknown female assailant, whose face he never sees.
With his sad Buster Keaton eyes, Bardem uses his stone face to his cinematic advantage here, as he does in "No Country For Old Men." Except in "Cholera," it's the face of a lover, not a killer. Like looking at a mask, you can read what you want into it, and Bardem knows it.
Ariza moves through his world sick from love, while others are dying of cholera. The metaphor works because despite his affairs, Ariza's soul is still virginal and uncorrupted by evil or disease. After the doctor's death, the unrequited love is finally consummated in a tribute to geriatric romance that surpasses that in 'The Notebook."
Though fans of the novel may find the movie cursory, "Love in the Age of Cholera" is certainly one of 2007's best cinematic love stories.