He is the historical figure whose life, perhaps more than any other, contains all the ingredients of sweeping, epic cinema. The story of South America’s great liberator, Simón Bolívar, has it all: an awakening, tragedy, honor, courage, romance and glory. Not to mention thunderous battle scenes. To effectively realize the Bolívar legend on film, however, requires the kind of budget beyond most studios, while the great man’s resolutely non-mainstream appeal among US audiences is unlikely to win over the Hollywood powers that could bankroll such a spectacle. A blessing, I suspect, for the thought of Tom Cruise leading his army of indigenous peasants, freed slaves and Republican soldiers against the Spanish Empire is something I can live without.
There have been several previous Bolivarian portrayals on screen. Who can forget 1942’s Simón Bolívar, with dashing Mexican star Julián Soler in the lead role? There was the 1967 film of the same name, in which Bolívar was played by a white Austrian actor, Maximillian Schell. More recently, Colombian film ¡Bolívar Soy Yo! was let down by a directorial style and piano-led soundtrack that gave it the air of a daytime telenovela.
Now, finally, a film has come along that does justice to the Bolívar legend. Alberto Arvelo’s Libertador (The Liberator) is an admirably ambitious piece of grandiose filmmaking, with strikingly realistic set pieces, a huge orchestral score and an extensive cast led by Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez. In the historical blockbusting tradition of Hollywood epics like Braveheart or Gladiator, this will have you imagining your cinema seat is a horse, your popcorn a sword, and your fellow filmgoers ranks of loyal generals.
We spoke to director Alberto Arvelo about the film, and Bolívar’s ongoing legacy in South America and beyond.
Can you tell us why you decided to make a film about Simón Bolívar?
To make a film about Simón Bolívar is an obsession I’ve lived with since I was little. I attribute this to the stories my father told me. I remember that one of his favorite accounts was the crossing of the Andes. Maybe that scene in the film is a tribute to those moments with my father. I have always felt that Bolívar is one of the most cinematic characters I have ever known, one of those inspiring stories waiting to be told. We hardly ever find a character that can shed the outfit of a statesman to wear the lover’s costume, to then put on the uniform of the soldier, or the clothes of a writer.
What has the audience reaction been like? Has there been any notable difference between those who know a lot about South American independence and those for whom the Bolívar story is less familiar?
“To make a film about Simón Bolívar is an obsession I’ve lived with since I was little.”
I believe that even Bolívar connoisseurs and those of us who have read the history of South American independence again and again are surprised to see the universal dimension of his saga and his legacy, as well as the sacrifice, the effort and vision that were behind it all. To see it reflected on the movie screen helps somehow to understand it, or at least to feel it.
Obviously it’s difficult to condense three decades of history into a two-hour film. How did you develop the narrative and decide which characters or events to omit and which to keep?
In the first conversation I had with Timothy Sexton, the screenwriter, we determined that the hardest thing would be to know what to take and what to leave out. Bolívar was a character with such a complex and fascinating life that it would be difficult to try to deal with his whole life even in a 1000-page novel. I can tell you that what was left out is as fascinating as what we took. Maybe more so.
Would you like to have made a longer film if possible? I mean, if they can do it with something like The Hobbit, you could potentially make several films or an extended TV series out of a historical figure like Bolívar.
Good question. To do an extended TV series is something that, I think, has always been there, floating in the air. Naturally, it’s not a hare-brained idea: Bolívar is, like few figures in history, an archetype of the romantic hero which embodies, as I said, many characters, all of them fascinating: the statesman, the wealthy heir who gives everything to the cause, the lover, the writer, the soldier, the aristocrat who navigates with equal ease the courts of Europe and common slave festivities.
“I believe a historic film is compelled to be as faithful to history as possible, and also to make its own revisions and interpretations of history.”
Did you have a particular market in mind for the film? It seems that The Liberator is a story that will be enjoyed by most people, whether South American or not. Was that an important aspect for you?
We always thought of it as a universal film. Tim Sexton wrote each scene so that it could be digested in any screening room in the world. Bolívar was a universal figure, like any romantic archetype, and as such his life can be motivation not just for a Latin American but for any film viewer in any corner of the world; after all, Bolívar speaks of such universal themes as the unity of peoples and equality for all men.
How important is it to be historically accurate? What are the main challenges of balancing that with commercial appeal?
I believe a historic film is compelled to be as faithful to history as possible, and also to make its own revisions and interpretations of history, especially when dealing with extraordinary figures such as Bolívar, Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr. To achieve the emotional reality of the character is essential. The biggest complication we had in terms of historic accuracy was that we were showing an extensive period of his life, so we had to focus on Bolívar’s own POV, leaving aside some characters who, undoubtedly, warranted more development and relevance.
There are some pretty stunning locations in the film. Is shooting on a tropical beach or in the jungle as enjoyable as it looks?
“We prepared the battles carefully and obsessively. I made a storyboard of each shot and we even made animatics of the most delicate moments…”
I remember a scene – which didn’t survive the blade of our editor Tarik Akwar – where I wanted to appear as an Irish soldier, wearing a suit made up of various layers of heavy cloth, an exact replica of the original. Only after I wore that costume in the middle of the Venezuelan Plains, at 40 degrees Centigrade, did I finally understand the dimension of the human sacrifice that’s behind a project like independence. But when you’re there, and you lose yourself in the stifling beauty of the environment, then you understand that to speak of man and of the earth in that part of the world is almost the same thing.
There are also some tremendous battle scenes. How did you go about creating such large-scale set pieces?
We prepared the battles carefully and obsessively. I made a storyboard of each shot and we even made animatics of the most delicate moments to achieve the dramatic tone I sought. Before filming I got together with our composer, Gustavo Dudamel, to define the music and the silence in the battle. We agreed that all of the preparation for battle should be sustained on choir music, so that the voice of men would generate the energy of the charge. I was obsessed with creating a battle where the POV was centered on the common man, not on a soldier: a battle where confusion and panic were the protagonists.
Did you always have Édgar Ramírez in mind to play Bolívar or was he one of several possible lead actors?
Édgar was the choice from day one. We had worked together on a couple of projects: he starred in a version of Cyrano de Bergerac shot in the slums of Caracas, called Cyrano Fernández, and we worked together on a kind of contemporary opera with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I always thought Édgar was the best choice, not least of all because I felt he was made of the same stuff as Bolívar. There is something in his versatility and intelligence that evokes, to me, a temperament such as Bolívar’s.
Was it the same for Spanish actress Maria Valverde in the role of Bolívar’s wife and great love Maria Teresa del Toro? What about the rest of the cast?
María Teresa was one of the characters for which we auditioned the most. María was able to capture the fragility and naiveté that I was looking for from the first moment. I wanted the arrival in the tropics to be perceived from the youthful fascination and astonishment of María Teresa, and Valverde understood brilliantly those colors in the character. María is one of the most intuitive and versatile actresses with whom I have worked. The Daniel O’Leary character, played by Iwan Rheon (Ramsey Bolton in Game of Thrones), came from the casting call we had in London. Iwan dazzled me from the first session. Danny Huston, Imanol Arias, Gary Lewis and Erich Wildpret were in my head for a long time before we started filming.
“I believe that if Bolívar saw today’s world he would think that things haven’t changed much.”
What relevance do you think Bolívar has in the present day? What can we learn from his vision of Pan-American unity?
I believe that Bolívar’s essential legacy is the vision of Latin America as a single nation. This vision, however, comes from the forefather of South American independence, Francisco de Miranda, although it was Bolívar who later assumed the role of champion of South American unity. Besides that legacy of unity, reflected in his Gran Colombia project, his vision of race equality and respect for human life made him a leader who was totally ahead of his time.
What would he make of the world today? Would he recognize any of the ideals he fought for?
I feel that the legacies of figures such as Bolívar, Lincoln or Mandela do not belong to a particular epoch; they’re legacies that transcend historic moments. The ideas of equality and unity are messages that go beyond borders and eras; something like what happens with great works of art, which can touch the human spirit with such depth that they never lose their relevance. I believe that if Bolívar saw today’s world he would think that things haven’t changed much.
Did he lead the independence movement or did the movement carry him forward? In other words, would South America have gained independence without him?
South American independence was a collective project that cannot be attributed exclusively to Bolívar. Before him, Miranda, for instance, had attempted to generate an independence struggle on the continent just as, subsequently, San Martín in Argentina, O’Higgins in Chile or Artigas in Uruguay did. What makes Bolívar extraordinary is his astounding ability to unite diverse social and cultural strata around the same project, all of it related to the concept of one Latin American nation, with its own identity and its own way of looking at the world.
How important were the people around him, such as his mentor Simón Rodríguez, his wife Maria Teresa del Toro, his later partner Manuela Saenz, and loyal generals like Antonio José de Sucre and Daniel O’Leary?
Going back to what I mentioned earlier, I feel that South American independence was a curiously collective process. From that standpoint, the figures who orbited around Bolívar had a defining role, not just in his personal life but also in the political process that surrounded him. The cases of María Teresa and Manuela Sáenz are very different: María Teresa represented for him the initiation to love and a life project; Manuela, close to the end of his life, was his lover and his companion in the cause.
Which other historical figures would you like to make a film about?
The Liberator has been selected as Venezuela’s entry for the 2015 Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category.