Simón Bolívar is certainly a figure worthy of a biopic—a revolutionary leader who nearly unified South America into a non-colonial American state. Though often overlooked in North American history books (I know I never read about him in school), Bolívar was an enormously influential political and military figure and a fairly unique one at that. His oversized imago is now something like a Central American George Washington—he has a country (Bolivia) named after him and political leaders as diverse as the far-right Marcos Perez Jimenez and the far-left Hugo Chavez have claimed Bolívar as their inspiration. Who better to play the charismatic leader than Édgar Ramírez? After playing the eponymous lead in Olivier Assayas' Carlos, Ramírez may be forever typecast as hunky Venezuelan revolutionaries, but his performance is strong in both roles. With a Venezuelan and Venezuelan director Alberto Arvelo, The Liberator is poised to be a tale of national pride. Yet while this film may succeed in concept, its execution leaves much to be desired, turning this dynamic figure into fodder for a narratively drab historical reenactment.
Film Society of Minneapolis Saint Paul
Director: Alberto Arvelo
Producers: Alberto Arvelo, Winfried Hammacher, Ana Loehnert
Writer: Timothy J. Sexton
Cinematographer: Xavi Giménez
Editor: Tariq Anwar
Music: Gustavo Dudamel
Cast: Édgar Ramírez, Erich Wildpret, María Valverde, Juana Acosta, Imanol Arias, Leandro Arvelo, Marta Benvenuty, Jon Bermúdez, Dacio Caballero
US Theatrical Release: November 23, 2014
US Distributor: Cohen Media Group
After a visually stunning and gripping opening—the camera follows behind General Bolívar as he walks into a captured fort and evades Spanish royal forces--The Liberator delves into Bolívar's youth. We follow a young Bolívar from his native Caracas to Spain where he trounces Prince Ferdinand of Spain in an auspicious game of badminton, sewing the seeds that will eventually lead to rebellion against that selfsame Spanish monarch. He meets a young woman (María Valverde) who he brings back to Venezuela to be his wife and, after her death from some unnamed disease, is so distraught that he winds up drinking and womanizing away a few years in Paris. This is until he is set back on the right course by his sensei-like maestro who encourages him to go back and free Venezuela from the yoke of the Spanish Empire, which he then does with all the naïveté and gusto of an aristocrat trying to lead a revolution. This story could be interesting, but it's treated with such portent that it feels more like a superhero origin story than a historically inspired drama. The same problem persists throughout Timothy Sexton's script; the film seems bogged down by the weight of historical authenticity, bouncing from one documented historical moment to the next with no time left to breathe.
Part of that is due to the subject matter—the script is trying to be a detailed history of the entire life of Bolívar, which is a task too daunting for any film. Imagine if Spielberg had begun Lincoln not with the aftermath of the Civil War and the crumbling southern forces, but instead with young Abe reading in a cabin by candlelight and then proceeded to jump from every important turning point (Lincoln in law school, his election, Harpers Ferry, every major battle, etc.) all wrapping up with Lincoln's assassination. That film would feel as jumbled and stretched as The Liberator does. While some moments are indeed powerful and Ramírez brings a visceral intensity to the role, the implications are too unclear to make any of them truly meaningful. At one point Bolívar leads a ragtag army made up mostly of farmers with pitchforks to overcome Spanish forces at a strategically important bridge, losing thousands in an uncoordinated assault. From this bloody victory we cut directly to Bolívar, now the President of Venezuela, dealing with political strife in his newfound country. The film is two hours long, yet it feels as if each moment on screen is given only about one fifth of the time it deserves.
Visually, The Liberator is actually quite spectacular with gruesome battles interspersed with the natural beauty of the region, caringly photographed by Xavi Giménez. And Ramírez brings a brawny physicality to the role that does a lot to spice up the bland script. Some early sex scenes, featuring Ramírez and his fine-boned, delicate wife, take full advantage of that discrepancy, making their different bodies intertwined a beautiful and interesting image. But despite some visual ingenuity, the focus on notable historical moments makes this feel like a tired historical war epic. To continue the Civil War analogy, it's like Glory or Gettysburg—a macho war movie and not a nuanced look at an important figure. Those who know a little about Bolívar may be disappointed by the shallowness of the portrayal, and those who don't will be confused by the unexplained skips and jumps through the long history of his campaign to free South America.