“I am the people”
I think I may have snorted a bit when the short list for foreign film Academy Award nominations came out with Libertador [The Liberator] as one of its paltry ten. They wouldn’t have placed the movie with those melodramatic character posters shrouded in a dark brooding atmosphere above critical darlings like Mommy and Two Days, One Night, would they? It just goes to show how you truly cannot judge a book by its cover because even I, the hater of sprawling epics hitting checkpoint after checkpoint until their grand leader meets his untimely end, found Alberto Arvelo‘s film a captivating historical yarn of which I knew nothing about. While that last part isn’t very telling since I know little of any of the wars or revolutions that helped shape our world today, my enjoyment was a surprise.
Written by Timothy J. Sexton (Oscar nominated screenwriting collaborator on Children of Men), this story of Simon Bolivar (Édgar Ramírez) spans his years as an affluent young man from Venezuela living the high life in Europe to sitting as President of the newly freed from Spanish rule South America. It’s a trajectory spurred on by the tragic death of love, fiery rhetoric of a respected teacher, and limitless pockets of a wealthy Englishman seeking a foothold in what could be a very lucrative, continental relationship. We watch as Bolivar innocently embarrasses the Spanish Prince in a Madrid-set game of badminton, woos the beautiful Maria Theresa (María Valverde), and returns home to quietly live under a royal crown represented by Captain General Monteverde (Imanol Arias) despite being leagues away. It’s not long, however, before such complacent comfort no longer proves viable.
What follows is an intriguing history lesson I found as educational as I did entertaining. The two-hour runtime drags somewhat, but I can’t say I didn’t leave the film smarter as a result. When I hear names of military leaders in South America I generally assume usurper, dictator, or tyrannical leader who may at one point been fighting for the people but eventually found power more appealing. Bolivar was not one of these men—at least not in the way Sexton and Arvelo represent him. A man of high ideals and a student educated in democracy who possessed enough wealth to never need such ideals to prosper, he saw the centuries of oppression and decided to do something. He personally bankrolled a revolution, recruited General Francisco de Miranda (Manuel Porto), and later led Latin America towards absolute unification himself.
It’s an underdog tale not just because it pits untrained men and women against a volatile and powerful Spanish army, but also due to Bolivar himself. This was a man of passionate words with an intelligence some like Martin Torkington (Danny Huston) gravitated towards as a potential leader and friend able to provide a piece of the pie, not a soldier ready to don his sword and run towards a regiment of enemy riflemen firing at will while allies fall around him. And yet he became exactly that. Privy to both sides of war—the strength and courage of the poor with nothing in the battlefield and the political deal brokering behind the scenes—once the latter showed it lacked the stomach to do the former proud, he stole control for his quest for equality.
Ramírez commands the screen with his presence much like he has in the past (“Carlos” for instance). There’s a fire in his romanticism with Maria Theresa and later his confidant Manuela Sáenz (Juana Acosta) as well as his dealings with men overstepping their bounds. At times he unleashes an animalistic force of will that you’ll imagine could keep him safe no matter what. It often does too as his Bolivar survives attack after attack, a death-defying trek through the Andes towards Bogotá, and an assassination attempt by one of his oldest allies. He never wavers from his goal to lead with the interests of the people at the forefront, though. Even when his life is in danger because others wish to carve the continent into smaller pieces, he knows such division would only breed opportunity for newfound tyranny.
Arvelo and cinematographer Xavi Giménez let the majesty of each landscape unfold as a character of exuberant grass, aristocratic games, and infinity of snow covered stone. There’s a romanticized feel to how the land is depicted because it’s what everyone fights to call his. And when the destruction begins with houses burning and bodies hanging from trees, the filmmakers do little to shield us from such terror. They even go so far as to introduce us to the violence straight away with Bolivar’s arrival home captured in a magnificent long take where the camera remains on the back of Ramírez’s head before hell breaks loose. Then and only then do we transport into the past to see exactly how a debutante in the making became a weathered hero of the common man.
I credit Sexton and Arvelo as well for not forcing a distinct timeline of events with unnecessary captions every ten minutes or so. There are a few to ground us with geography throughout, but I’ll admit I just assumed every battle was simply the next progression point of one cohesive war. I guess it was to a certain extent, but Bolivar’s journey was more segmented as he went to help Venezuela’s neighboring countries in their own revolutions. He became President of them all rather than President of a continent as the film inferred to me—a semantic distinction that would only have convoluted things to be explicitly explained. The filmmakers instead decide to trust their audience and Ramírez’s performance to keep us invested in the bigger picture for freedom. It is a movie after all, not a textbook.
 Édgar Ramírez as Simón Bolívar. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.
 Danny Houston as Martin Torkington in The Liberator. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.
 MARÃA VALVERDE as Maria Teresa del Toro in THE LIBERATOR. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.