Libertador: The Liberator: Toronto Review

Impressively mounted but overly truncated take on a great historical figure about whom much more needs to be known.

This too-short look at Simon Bolivar's effort to lift the yoke of Spanish colonialism off the inhabitants of the northern part of South America stars Edgar Ramirez as the great historical figure.

To tell the extraordinary story of Simon Bolivar onscreen in two hours represents a Sisyphean struggle of the first order but, as such ventures go, Libertador: The Liberator gives it a half-decent shot—half, because the film would need to be twice as long to even begin to tell the whole story. This physically impressive Venezuelan-Spanish production clearly lays out both the ideological forces at play in the early 1800s and the nature of the physical challenge of pushing the Spanish out of South America after 300 years of control. It also has the advantage of the charismatic and capable Edgar Ramirez in the title role of a great historical figure almost criminally unknown to most North Americans. As this mostly Spanish-language epic is not at all an art house item, the best bet for U.S. release would be an enterprising distributor that knows how target and motivate Hispanic viewers and would not rest until it had positioned the film as a must-see event for people of a Spanish-speaking heritage.

The title refers to the man who, more than any other, lifted the yoke of Spanish colonialism off the inhabitants of the northern part of South America. The real story is a very long one, drawn out over several decades, one that covered vast terrain, involved more than 100 battles and became quite murky toward the end, to the point that no one knows the exact circumstances of his death in 1830.

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Simply put, this born aristocrat who took up the cause of indigenous and downtrodden common people defies easy dramatization (Bolivar’s story has been prominently told in at least two previous films, the 1942 Mexican production Simon Bolivar and Italian director Alessandro Blasetti's identically named final feature, in 1969, with Maximilian Schell in the title role). But American screenwriter Timothy J. Sexton (co-writer of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men) keeps the focus tight on his subject's personal evolution from pampered rich boy and sorrowful young widower to a believer in the ideals of Washington, Jefferson and French Enlightenment figures and a fearless warrior.

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 landowning heir’s tutelage in Spain, blissful early marriage to a young woman who dies of yellow fever six months after he brings her to Venezuela and subsequent dissolute period in Paris, where, revulsed by "dictator" Napoleon, he is finally reawakened to the ideals of freedom.
As a military leader, Bolivar gets off to a rocky start but, sensing the Spanish grip on its colonies beginning to weaken, he gathers support and troops, moving from one jungle village to another. Gruesome evidence of Spanish massacres merely increases his determination but, by 1815, he’s trumped by the arrival of a huge Spanish fleet, forcing a retreat to Jamaica. With backing from British financier Torkington (Danny Huston), Bolivar plots a new attempt while more deeply articulating his aims, which include going beyond establishing U.S. liberties to insist upon freedom for all, not just whites.

Announcing that "We will end the reign of Cortez on this land," Bolivar, with troops ranging from local peasants to significant numbers of English and Irish recruits, begins turning the tide and leads a potentially suicidal crossing of the Andes designed to take the Spanish by surprise. Many die in the mountains but the ruse succeeds in the decisive Battle of Boyaca in 1819, marking the real beginning of the end for Spain in South America.

Having assembled an impressive international crew, including Spanish cinematographer Xavi Gimenez (The Machinist, Agora), production designer Paul D. Austerberry (Twilight Saga: Eclipse), costume designer Sonia Grande (Midnight in Paris) and editor Tariq Anwar (American Beauty, The King’s Speech), Venezuelan director Alberto Arvelo (A House With a View of the Sea) has mounted a production that looks first-rate by any standards, including fine CGI work for the battle scenes and imposing armada.

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But when, at the 95-minute mark, Arvelo returns the drama to the introductory attempt on Bolivar’s life, things become very murky. No full sense has been provided of the extent of Bolivar’s successes, the political situation on the ground in 1828 and the nature of his opposition. Lip service has been given earlier that South America is difficult to unite because of the multiple subsets of people -- white, brown, black, native Indian, slaves, peasants, Spanish loyalists, et al. -- but a proper feeling for the combined greatness, complexity and incompleteness of Bolivar's accomplishment can't be conveyed without a fuller portrayal of his own state of mind toward the end of his life, however ambiguous it might have been.

Dramatically, then, Libertador: The Liberator lacks a good resolution that can’t be entirely blamed on the questionable circumstances of its hero’s death; the telescoping of events in the film’s final third is just too extreme. One feels that, for whatever reasons, Arvelo and/or the producers decided that the film should come in at two hours and not a minute more (it runs 119 minutes) when it really could have used another half-hour at least to flesh out the story's complexity and historical ramifications. Bolivar deserved more; a mini-series would have been even more like it.

Still, the exceptional life story and history that will be unfamiliar to most viewers keep the film absorbing, and then there’s the big plus of Ramirez in the title role. Having established his international reputation with his extraordinary performance in the 2010 French miniseries Carlos, the Venezuelan-born actor bears scant physical resemblance to the thinner, far less macho figure the real Bolivar cuts in paintings. Nor is he made to age much over the course of the drama. But, once again making use of his multi-lingual skills in Spanish, English and French, Ramirez fulsomely represents the numerous relevant aspects of his character: Natural aristocrat, educated thinker, salon-dwelling wastral, lover, brooding political thinker, fighter. He’s onscreen virtually the whole time and one only wishes more dimensions of the man had been written for him to play.

Supporting roles are well filled throughout, with Huston a delight as the droll gambling man whose support for Bolivar ultimately comes at too high a price. Maria Valverde and Juana Acosta are attractive and spirited as the two main women in the man’s life.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival
Production: San Mateo Films, Producciones Insurgentes
Cast: Edgar Ramirez, Maria Valverde, Erich Wildpret, Iwan Rheon, Orlando Valenzuela, Juana Acosta, Manuel Porto, Alejandro Furth, Imanol Arias, Danny Huston, Gary Lewis, Francisco Denis, Elisa Sednaoui, Andres Gertrudix, Juvel Vielma, Carlos Julio Molina, Ximo Solano
Director: Alberto Arvelo
Screenwriter: Timothy J. Sexton
Producers: Winfried Hammacher, Ana Loehnert, Alberto Arvelo
Executive producers: Edgar Ramirez, Maria A. Guerrero Rocca
Director of photography: Xavi Gimenez
Production designer: Paul D. Austerberry
Costume designer: Sonia Grande
Editor: Tariq Anwar
Music: Gustavo Dudamel
119 minutes