Libertador (Original Title)
Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 59 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 6; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
…learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
The makers of this Venezuelan-Spanish production try to squeeze into two hours a story that would better be served by the popular form of a miniseries or trilogy. Still, truncated as it is, North Americans who know little of the great Liberator beyond his name, Simon Bolivar, even if they watch just the opening words that introduce the film, will learn a great deal:
“Simon Bolivar fought over 100 battles against the Spanish Empire in South America. He rode over 70,000 miles on horseback. His military campaigns covered twice the territory of Alexander the Great. His army never conquered — it liberated.”
Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez Arellano does not look like the famous portraits of the Liberator, but his dynamic portrayal makes us understand how the charismatic leader could win over such a large and loyal during his all too brief lifetime.
Framed around an assassination attempt on Bolivar in 1828 (the film neatly sidesteps any mention of the increasingly dictatorial tendencies that caused some former allies to turn against him), the narrative flips back 28 years to the wealthy plantation owner’s tutelage in Spain, blissful early marriage to a young that ends in sorrow, and his subsequent dissolute period in Paris, where, repulsed by “dictator” Napoleon, he is finally reawakened to the ideals of freedom.
As stated above, director Alberto Arvelo and writer Timothy Sexton frame their film around an assassination attempt on Bolivar from which his mistress Manuela Sáenz (Juana Acosta) helps him escape. It then jumps back some 28 years when the youth was still living the unpromising life of a wealthy playboy sent to Spain for his education. Despite the tutelage of Enlightenment scholar Simon Rodriguez (Francisco Denis), Bolivar shows no interest in politics or in abstract ideas such as Freedom and Equality. However, he is soon introduced to the perils of politics when he inadvertantly shames the Spanish Prince Fernando during a lawn game, resulting in his banishment from the royal court. He soon meets and marries the lovely María Teresa (María Valverde), bringing her back to his estate in Venezuela.
We see that he is still largely unmindful of the lowly when he is bringing his bride by carriage to his home. On the way to his plantation they pass laboring in the sugar field some slaves, one of whom is being cruelly whipped. Maria is disturbed that he did not stop to intervene. He wasn’t my slave is his answer to her query. No wonder Rodriguez calls the young man a “noble savage.” The couple enjoys just six months of wedded bliss before Maria dies of Yellow Fever.
The grief-stricken husband spends several years in Paris living the dissolute life made possible by great wealth. However, after Napoleon shows the true colors of a tyrant, invading Spain with great bloodshed, Bolivar, taking to heart the democratic teachings of his mentor ad now friend, returns to his native land and becomes involved in the rebellion against Spanish tyranny. Amidst a series of battles in which the peasants fight along with Bolivar’s upper-crust colleagues, Bolivar broadens his views to include “Equality” with “Freedom.” Jefferson is among the thinkers, and Washington among the leaders, whom he comes to admire.
The many battles are staged so well that it made me sorry that the film did not make it to the big screen. There are alternating scenes of vast fields filled with armies marching toward each other with close-ups of the savage hand to hand combat, body parts flying through the air from exploding cannon shots, and men stabbing one another with bayonets and swords. This section is not for the squeamish. Bolivar’s military campaigns rise and fall in terms of success, at one point Bolivar having to flee to Jamaica after a huge Spanish fleet brings more troops. The highpoint (literally) involves Bolivar, Hannibal-like, leading his ragtag army up and over the Andes so as to take the Spanish troops by surprise, the Battle of Boyaca in 1819 becoming a turning point in the struggle against Spanish rule.
Because of its relative brevity, the film does not provide many details of the political maneuvering of Bolivar and his colleagues, or why some turned against him. The shadowy figure of British financier Torkington (Danny Huston) is important, as are the large number of Irish soldiers who join the South Americans. As with the American Revolutionists, foreign (French in this case) money and soldiers were important in sustaining the South American one. The film does emphasize that Bolivar believed in uniting the various countries in a system similar to that of the newly formed United States, but due to many interests opposed to such unity, he was doomed to disappointment. (I was reminded during this section of Gandhi’s feeling of failure when Pakistan separated from India at the end of the British Raj.)
There has been much debate as to Bolivar’s end—did he die of illness, or was he assassinated? Thus the conclusion of this film is debatable. According to some the script was more influenced by the politics of the current Venezuelan government, still under the influence of the late Pres. Hugo Chavez, than history. Despite this, the film is both entertaining and, for us Yankees who know little more than the name of its subject, enlightening as well. The territory he helped liberate is vast, including what is now Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, and Peru. As citizens of the world we should know more about the past of our neighbors in the south.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Feb. issue of VP.