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Star Édgar Ramírez gained some notoriety several years ago through Carlos, a miniseries about the notorious Carlos the Jackal. 2013's The Liberator is a massive epic about the life of Simón Bolívar;. It got an invisible release in the United States and disappeared soon thereafter because, I'm guessing, nobody here knows or cares anything about South America, an entire continent closely tied to our own national destiny.
Director Alberto Arvelo's Libertador was Venezuela's submission to the Oscars, although it didn't make the cut. The writer is Timothy J. Sexton, an American who moved to Mexico City to work and is responsible for the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Alfonso Cuarón's superb Children of Men (2006), which is still the best future-shock science fiction film. As written Libertador is a blueprint for a potential Lawrence of Arabia of South America. Director Arvelo makes it big and sprawling, yet peppers it with scenes that tilt a bit toward racy cable fare. It's a prominent example of the kind of international filmmaking that is already making Hollywood less relevant. The fact that American distributors don't want a picture is no longer the kiss of death, but can in fact now be considered a compliment. Lucrative film markets lie elsewhere now. 1
It is the early 1800s. Simón Bolívar is a rich landowner and farmer in Spanish colonial Venezuela, and more liberal than his neighbors, some of whom keep and mistreat slaves. He isn't enamored of Spanish royalty, but he brings his bride María Theresa del Toro (María Valverde) back from Madrid. Simón loses her to malaria. Then his uncle, an outspoken critic of the Empire is forced into hiding. Deciding to dedicate his life to uniting all of South America and driving out the Spaniards, Simón hires a foreign general to plan the strategy. After some terrible battles the general sells out. Simón is captured but let go because of his connections. Instead of fleeing, he forms a peasant army and builds a revolution that inspires half a continent and attracts foreign volunteers. He's aided by his loyal general Antonio Jose de Sucre (Erich Wildpret) and the politically-savvy Manuela Sáenz (Juana Acosta). Crossing the Andes to fight in Colombia and Ecuador, Simón forms Gran Colombia along the lines of the United States of America. But divisive infighting and greed guarantee that his united South America will not last.
The Liberator is definitely something different. Rebellion and revolution back in this time of history are a game of the rich, often funded by speculators in empire. Throughout the show Bolívar is dogged by the charming businessman-diplomat Tarkington (Danny Huston), who offers him gifts and bribes. Simón knows that reciprocation and special considerations are expected in return, and is not amused when Tarkington suggests that his company be granted the right to found the first Bank of Gran Colombia... in other words, to take control and 'own' the entire region's economy. South Americans are very conscious of financial and economic controls, either from extranjeros that seek to buy land for pennies, or revolutionaries that would redistribute property to the poor. The landed gentry of Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador are Bolívar's real enemies, as their idea of liberation is simply to get rid of Spain's tax collectors. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of united South Americans die fighting for Bolívar's dream of freedom and fairness.
Édgar Ramírez is just right as the great liberator, an intelligent man putting his energies into a massive undertaking. He becomes a competent general by seeing the faults in the official system; when the Spaniards fight dirty he takes the gloves off completely. An entire brigade of Irish volunteers arrives accompanied by their own commander (Gary Lewis) to fight honestly by Bolívar's side. Meanwhile, Bolívar's own colleague-general Monteverde (Imanol Arias) tries to limit the struggle to the removal of the Spanish overseers for the benefit of a new aristocracy.
Director Arvelo makes things clear at all times, without making writer Sexton's already simplified story to repetitious -- the real story of Simón Bolívar is buried in myth and conflicting accounts, and the political story was far more complex. Nations, companies and banks surely had their agents and observers involved at every level; the Tarkington character stands for them all. The result is a fair approximation, even if a sinister conspiracy by the "New Granada" traitors is laid upon the story as if it were proven fact.
As an epic thriller there isn't a great deal new here. The battles are a little repetitive at times; older epics rarely had more than one or two sustained military combat scenes. Arvelo often favors sweeping aerial shots to show troops moving over mountains, or rowing down rivers in a vast armada of war canoes. Post- Lord of the Rings, these scenes and others that use CGI to represent big battles no longer impress viewers. When one thinks of it, directors like David Lean and Franklin Schaffner succeed by distilling massive military endeavors into salient highlights, and then skate ahead to scenes with new ideas.
Arvalo obtains excellent scenes of period pomp and protocol, however. When Bolívar foolishly wins a game of badminton against a foppish Spanish prince, we get to see how Iberian aristocrats look down their noses at 'savages' from El Mundo Nuevo. Confronted by a hostile royalist general at her table, María Theresa Bolívar sidesteps issues of loyalty by cooly pointing out the general's terrible manners. It's a good ploy, as the general can do little more than remind her that the formalities of Madrid have been left behind in the New World, and then withdraw. The settings and costumes are authentic looking. When Simón takes part in court dancing, it looks as if someone did their research.
Simón's romance with this first wife is awfully brief yet we're treated to two nude love scenes; perhaps she died not of Yellow Fever but of overexposure due to ant bites out in the greenery. From what I've read of Spanish Catholics of the era, entire marriages could elapse without either partner disrobing entirely when together. Poor María Theresa seems inspired by all that gorgeous Venezuelan scenery, but she's no sooner introduced to Simón's Ponderosa-scaled landholdings than she falls ill.
The church is also absent from The Liberator, an omission that simplifies things but might also have been done to sidestep censor objections. Although the movie celebrates a revolution, it doesn't imply that a new one today is a good idea. Sexton's script frames the film with Bolívar's near-killing in an attempted coup in 1828. He managed to put Gran Colombia together but it only held for eleven years. During his research, author Sexton has said that he had to interpret Bolívar in a general way just to give his character a shape. He found that there's no consensus image of the man because scholars and patriots have altered his history to suit their needs. There's also no wholly authoritative account of Simón's death, the show chooses to indicate skullduggery behind the official story that he succumbed to tuberculosis. Tarkington reveals what Bolívar should have recognized as a death sentence, with his words, "I wish you could see the larger picture Simón, for your sake." It's the same deal as the one given Warren Beatty in McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Buck Henry in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The disputed official record has no such conspiracy.
The Liberator also shows its own streak of national pride, Sexton said that the Venezuelan producers wouldn't make the movie until a Latin actor could be found, and that didn't happen until Édgar Ramírez became a star. They weren't about to accept a Spaniard in the role of their anti-Spanish legend. 2
The Cohen Media Group's Blu-ray of The Liberator is a quality rendition of this fairly new feature. Colors are excellent in the show's impressive scenery filmed in Venezuela and Spain (Jerez, Seville, and Segovia). Cameraman Xavi Giménez makes the women look beautiful, especially in a candle-lit dance party where Simón meets Manuela Sáenz.
The dialogue is predominantly Spanish, but this version inserts English-language narration, and quite a bit of English the scenes with Tarkington and others. This may have been planned to at least give the film a crack at the U.S. market.
The film score is by Gustavo Dudamel, the present music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Los Angeles. Although he shuttles between L.A. and another post in Sweden, he's a Venezuelan by birth. Make no mistake -- The Liberator is a Venezuelan production through and through.
A short and pleasant video introduction with Dudamel made for the film's premiere at a Los Angeles film festival is present. But the very long making-of documentary covers the entire production from end to another, with classy interview material, clips, and many behind-the-scenes shots.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Liberator Blu-ray
1. Face it, things have changed. In 1960 in the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Even Trying, a big joke could be made that a suddenly-missing Madison Avenue executive has been transferred to "Ven- Ezz - Zway - Lah." The joke is that being sent to a South American country is like being escorted off the planet: nobody thinks about Venezuela in the U.S.. It's nothing personal, but the dominant Yankee culture didn't have to acknowledge the existence of anyone --- back then.
2. Tourist tip: remember that, as congenial as they are, many South Americans don't appreciate us U.S. citizens identifying ourselves as 'Americans'. That implies that the hemisphere belongs to us, while they're just renting space. With the new economic shift many countries can now assert their identities without our approval. Somos norteamericanos.
and my favorite book about the Conquest and the Liberation of South America, Spain: The Root and the Flower: An Interpretation of Spain and the Spanish People by John A. Crow.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.