Arts & Events

The Liberator: A Superbowl of SuperBolivarian Bravado
Opens October 3 at the Century 9 in San Francisco

Gar Smith
Friday October 03, 2014 - 12:42:00 PM

Let's start with a question: Why is it that an Academy-Award-nominated film about Simon Bolivar is NOT being screened in Berkeley? (I wish I had the answer to that.) Now to the review: 

The Liberator comes on like the South American sibling of Lawrence of Arabia. The background scenery offers a spellbinding array of towering mountains and endless plains while the battle scenes are vast, harrowing and grisly. Alberto Arvelo's epic portrayal, gives us a Liberator who is a liberal-turned-libertine-turned-liberating-swashbuckler—a wounded romantic born to become one of history's Leading Men 


It is impossible to capture a life like Simon Bolivar's in a single 119-minute movie—even one as grand as Alberto Arvelo's sprawling epic (reputed to be the most expensive production in the history of Latin American filmmaking). The director is clearly aware that no film can do justice to Bolivar's history. Before The Liberator even begins, Arvelo flashes some basic background on the screen to hint at all the stories he had to exclude: 

• Bolivar fought more than 100 battles against the Spanish Empire. 

• In the course of these battles, Bolivar rode more than 70,000 miles on horseback. 

• His victorious campaigns covered twice as much territory as that claimed by the armies of Alexander the Great. 

• And "His army never conquered—it liberated." 

Edgar Ramirez is compelling in the title role but for anyone familiar with Bolivar's many thin-faced, narrow-nosed portraits, it takes awhile to accept this hunky Venezuelan actor as El Libertador. (Imagine, if you can, Ben Affleck starring in a biopic of George Washington.) 

Bolivar's astonishing life (and unresolved death) would provide grist for a dozen dark-hearted films laden with conspiracy, intrigue and political betrayals. Instead, with Arvelo's epic portrayal, we are given a Liberator who is a liberal-turned-libertine-turned-liberating-swashbuckler—a wounded romantic born to become one of history's Leading Men. 

The History 

The Liberator (in Spanish, English and French) begins with an 1828 assassination attempt on Bolivar's life in Bogota and flashes back to his privileged childhood in Venezuela. After the deaths of his wealthy parents, young Simon is entrusted to the care of a slave woman named Hipolita. At the age of 17, Bolivar's uncle sends him to Spain where he mixes with the Royal Court and marries Maria Teresa del Toro (Mária Valverde), who returns with him to his vast estate in Venezuela. 

By 1810, Bolivar is committed to the independence struggle but when his commander, General Miranda, agrees to an armistice with the Spanish commander, Bolivar hands Miranda over to the Spaniards and is expelled to Venezuela. (Political backstabbing within the revolutionary movement will eventually threaten Bolivar's life as well.) 

From a new base in New Granada (present-day Colombia), Bolivar crosses into Venezuela, frees Caracas from Spain, and is hailed as "The Liberator." Arvelo's film details some of the dirty nuts-and-bolts of running a vast military campaign. It is necessary, for example, to secure funding from foreign powers (like Britain) that wish to see Spain defeated—so the territory can be exploited by British commercial interests. (See the link to a related documentary at the end of this review.

Bolivar expands his army by granting freedom to Haitian slaves and accepting the services of European fighters—including a tide of red-haired Irish Brigade volunteers. 

By 1824, Bolivar has expanded the new nation of Gran Colombia to include Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru. Two years later, he added Mexico and Central America to his League of United Provinces. 

One of the reasons for Bolivar's hard-won success on the battlefield was that he didn't just raise an army, he went beyond that and created an armed community—an interracial agglomeration of peasant farmers, Indigenous Amazon natives, emancipated African slaves and a contingent of women who marched through mountains, bore children along the way, and took up arms against the Spanish forces. (Take a close look at the faces of the people standing ready at Bolivar's back in The Liberator. Arvelo's camera palpably reinforces the message that this was no ordinary army.) 

Bolivar's most audacious campaign involved a "surprise attack" on Spanish forces at the Battle of Boyacá. It was a surprise because, in order to mount the attack, Bolivar first had to march his army—soldiers, wagons, cannon, women and children—through the waist-deep snows of the Andes Mountains. 

Sweeping Vistas of Mountain Peaks and Bloody Battlefields 

The Liberator comes on like the South American sibling of Lawrence of Arabia. The background scenery offers a spellbinding array of towering mountains and endless plains while the battle scenes are vast, harrowing and grisly. While most "war movies" include staged shots of focused explosions tossing victims off their feet and out of the frame, Arvelo does something I've never seen before. From the air, he shows an entire battlefield stretching over several miles with cannon fire pummeling the earth from multiple directions. When a cannon shot falls to earth, it throws bodies into the air and we see them land in the dust nearby. At the same time, hundreds of other rebels and soldiers are engaged in mortal combat across the entire screen. It's like viewing the Superbowl of Carnage. And the shot only lasts a few seconds. 

In another jaw-dropping scene, Bolivar is shown at the prow of a small wooden war canoe, paddling along a broad river. Then the camera shows us the scene from the air. Bolivar's canoe is at the lead of an armada of hundreds of native dugouts heading downriver to challenge King Ferdinand's soldiers. 

The Women in Bolivar's Life 

In Arvelo's Liberator, warfare is balanced by romance, beginning with a stretch of idyllic months with Maria Teresa on Bolivar's sweeping estate in Venezuela. These scenes are filmed like an extended Cialis commercial, with swooping aerial shots of lovers running blissfully over the landscape as the sunshine envelopes them. But instead of ending with the silhouette of two bathtubs, we get two naked bodies—a definite improvement. 

The Liberator also benefits from its inclusion of the second love of Bolivar's life—Doña Manuela Saena. "Manuelita" (Juana Acosta) was a fiery and cunning revolutionary in her own right. She became Bolivar's ally and used her intelligence and courage to save his life more than once. 

The Liberator also benefits hugely from a musical score composed by Venezuela-born Gustavo Dudamel. Known in the US as the energetic young conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dudamel also serves as the Music Director of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. 

The Liberator ends with a controversial depiction of Bolivar's death. Most histories conclude he died of tuberculosis during a sea voyage. (Former Venezuelan leader—and ardent Bolivarian—Hugo Chavez had Bolivar's body exhumed and declared the forensic evidence suggested "The General" had been poisoned.) Arvelo opts for a more dramatic—and stirring—conclusion. 

Fun fact: Nearly 6,000 costumes were required for The Liberator, 1,500 of these were hand-made for the film. There were 28 specific outfits for Bolivar alone. With the addition of replacements for costumes damaged during the battle scenes, the final tally came to around 100 costumes for the lead character. 

Fun Fact: The Liberator was filmed on two continents—in South America and Spain. The film required 100 separate sets and 10,000 extras. 

Fun Fact: It was necessary to film many of the scenes in Spain's Andalusia region because, in many of the original South American locations, the town plazas now boast large statues of Simon Bolivar. 

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Was Simon Bolivar a Tool of a British-based Masonic Conspiracy? 

For Spanish-speaking conspiraciónistas, check out this controversial full-length documentary that examines the role that Britain's secret society of the Masons may have played behind the scenes of the politics of colonial-era South America. 

Bolivar y San Martín: Libertadores o Cipayos Masones de Inglaterra? 


(May 8, 2013) -- José de San Martín (along with Bolivar, one of the two leaders of South America's wars for independence) was employed as a British agent. San Martin traveled to the Rio de la Plata and then moved to South America on a mission entrusted to him by Britain. There were several British politicians and military friends who influenced the overall adventure—all of them professional soldiers and intelligence operatives who knew very well what they were doing. Throughout his campaign in South America, San Martín traveled under a British passport, after swearing allegiance to Britain.  

Funded by London, he was monitored and controlled by British officials. Simon Bolívar met in London with General Miranda and agreed the invasion of South America would be funded by Masonic lodges in London. The main objective was to defeat the Spanish monarchy and open trade between England and South America.