Simon Bolivar had traits from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Napoleon, all in one titanic personality.
Born to wealth, he came to champion equal rights for all South Americans. A military dilettante, he fought in over 100 battles and had a hand in liberating much of Latin America.
Statesman, warrior, “Enlightenment Man” and lover, that’s a lot of Bolivar to squeeze into one movie.
So “The Liberator” is an ambitious overreach, a Latin epic with Spanish court intrigues and battles, epiphanies and seductions, at two hours barely sketching in the mythic man for whom Bolivia is named and much of South America owes its independence to.
Edgar Ramirez (“Zero Dark Thirty”) makes an earthy, muscular impression as Bolivar, a man we meet as he comes home to his last lover (Juana Acosta), Manuela, who only wants to liberate him from his uniform. This is the night, late in his career, when his enemies came closest to seizing him, but first things first.
In a long flashback, we see the life and career that brought him to that defining moment. A member of Venezuela’s late 18th/ early 19th century landed gentry, Bolivar was raised by a black slave woman, educated and yet slow to see the need to reform a system which placed him at the top, from birth. But an outspoken teacher who has embraced The Enlightenment principles that fired the American and French Revolutions has his ear. And young Simon is moved to action.
“The noble savage has finally awakened!” teacher Simon Rodriguez (Francisco Denis) declares. And so he has. Bolivar first commissions an experienced but aged General Montverde (Imanol Arias) whose motives he questions, and then takes on the mantle of leadership himself, first enduring a sojourn in the wilderness where he comes to realize who this revolution is really for.
Danny Huston is deliciously duplicitous as a British backer of the revolutionaries.
“It’s not every day that an entire continent comes into play,” his Torkington (a fictional figure) purrs, hoping Bolivar won’t dig too deep to consider why the Brits want the Spanish colonies independent.
“The Liberator” may be a Cliff Notes version of South American history, but Ramirez breathes life into it and makes us care, even as we dash from this bloody struggle on the field to that debate and compromise in the legislature.
But Ramirez hauls this entire truncated Timothy Sexton script (he wrote the recent Cesar Chavez bio-pic) through the Andes, into decades of battles, into Spain and across the finish line, giving a charismatic, impassioned performance in Spanish and English. He suggests an impulsive, frustrated man straining to achieve the impossible, to be both a liberator and leader, a visionary and pragmatic soldier.
So even though “The Liberator” is no more successful in achieving its goals than Bolivar was — he wanted a United States of South America — Ramirez lets us appreciate a film, like its subject, whose reach exceeds its grasp.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with violence, sexual situations
Cast: Edgar Ramirez, María Valverde, Danny Huston, Gary Lewis, Imanol Arias, Juana Acosta
Credits: Directed by Alberto Arvelo, written by Timothy J. Sexton. A Cohen Media release.
Running time: 1:58