Wednesday, May 27, 2015

THE LIBERATOR (Libertador, 2013)

Alberto Alvero's biopic may not be the first film about Simon Bolivar, but it may be the first Bolivarian Bolivar movie. This aspiring epic in many ways reflects the viewpoint of the "Bolivarian Revolution" that has dominated Venezuela since the advent of Hugo Chavez, who may well have seen himself as a modern-day Bolivar but didn't live to see this film. Aimed at the global market, Liberator was written by Timothy J. Sexton, a co-writer of Children of Men and otherwise a mostly political filmmaker, and is performed partly in English to accommodate guest American Danny Huston and the actors playing Bolivar's Irish brigade. Its major asset, indisputably, is Edgar Ramirez in the title role. Ramirez exploded on the global film scene as the star terrorist of Olivier Assayas's epic miniseries Carlos, but had not done anything on a similar scale until this picture, for which he gets an Executive Producer credit. His charisma is necessary to carry us through a film that often seems, at just under two hours, like a digest (or perhaps digestible) version of a necessarily more detailed and complex life story. Experts can debate the picture's historical accuracy; I was fascinated by its alternate vision of revolution, in often stark contrast to Bolivar's own American model.

In typical modern fashion, the movie opens in medias res, showing the mature Bolivar as an embattled revolutionary racing to escape a conspiratorial trap. It then takes us back to his beginnings as just another son of South American wealth taking the Grand Tour of Europe and bringing home a bride who proves too vulnerable to his homeland's harsh environment. Broken in spirit by her early death, he returns to Europe and lives a wastrel's life until an old teacher reminds him of the need to liberate the continent from Spanish rule. Simon puts himself at the service of a General Miranda, but finds his tactics too conservative. Relegated to a backwater, he finally finds something worth fighting for passionately when someone steals his boots. He chases the culprit to a swampland shanty, where an abject mother begs him to spare her boy's life. Bolivar seems to notice poverty in all its wretchedness for the first time. As a plantation owner he had seen slavery but had considered it none of his business when another planter treated slaves badly. Now he realizes that if the revolution is to be worth anything it must be for the good of the poor. The scene may remind American viewers that their own revolution is never portrayed this way, and for good reason. Our revolution was all about middle-class aspirations frustrated by imperial trade policy, and the revolutions in Latin America were probably similarly motivated to a great extent, but the added imperative to improve the lives of poor people whose poverty is blamed directly on oppression, and who this film's Bolivar believes should get something from the revolution, makes for a very different history and a very different sort of film.

From this point forward, Bolivar is pitted constantly against ostensible allies who are ultimately only out for themselves, or whose interests are purely parochial. They resist his vision of a united continent liberated by people's war. Liberator credits Bolivar's victories to the leader's vision and the people's will. It shows a ragtag army of all races and both sexes, including foreign friends like the anti-colonial Irishmen, on a long march through the Andes, explicitly compared to Hannibal in the Alps but also implicitly comparable to Mao in China, culminating in a human-wave attack, with our hero in the lead, that proves successful against the odds. Alvero shifts from godlike views of the armies from directly above to close-up mayhem as Bolivar's host forces the Spaniards onto a bridge and the battle becomes a kind of rugby scrum with bayonets.

Bolivar makes the professional soldiers uncomfortable,
and feels most at home at the head of an inclusive people's army

Triumph turns to tragedy as Bolivar's allies mostly reject his vision of a united continent. The way he and his opponents talk past each other is telling. They fear that his united republic will give too much power to one man, namely Bolivar, and protest that they didn't fight the King of Spain only to have a dictator take over. Bolivar never bothers to refute the dictator charge. What matters to him is that the revolution and the republic are for the people, and that vested interests and local powers have no place in the new order. It appears to be an irreconcilable clash of priorities, and the Liberator's morale briefly falters before his most loyal friends urge him to stand firm and preserve his vision of union by force if necessary. In a historically questionable climax, the film implies that Bolivar was murdered by his enemies, thus thwarting the people's destiny of unity and republican equality for generations to come. But it hints that the torch will be carried on when Bolivar, before his final betrayal, meets a poor young fisherman who happens to share his name.

If Carlos the Jackal was a classic Scorsesean antihero, Ramirez's Simon Bolivar is a classic epic hero, and the actor delivers the charismatic bombast necessary for the role. Alvero and Sexton would have us see Bolivar as an epic lover as well, often draping their hero with glamorous if not gratuitous female nudity; we rarely see that sort of thing in American Revolution films, either. Maybe it comes with the territory. If it sometimes seems like a vanity project for Ramirez, that's probably because no other character in the film is developed extensively. We get to know them enough to know whether they're for or against the Liberator, or we know them until they turn against him. That tends to make Bolivar's debates with his various antagonists rather one-sided. While the film is willing to show Bolivar in moments of weakness or self-doubt, it refuses to consider that he may want too much power, and it takes for granted that those who oppose him are selfish, greedy, and indifferent to the poor. The failure of his vision is in no way his fault in this version of his story. As a film this version is interesting to the extent that its story is novel to audiences, and the filmmaking is effective without being really visionary. As history, it will be most successful if it inspires or provokes us to find out more about Bolivar on our own. As it happens, I have a biography on the shelf that I intend to pull out now, so on that level The Liberator is a success. If it wanted to be all you needed to know, or all someone wanted you to know about Simon Bolivar, that's another story.

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