In a military and political career that traversed the length of the Andes, the visionary general Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) — often described as South America’s answer to George Washington — fought more than 100 battles in his quest to liberate the continent from Spanish rule.
But now, 185 years after his death, the General is defenseless against the latest attacks coming his way: both from the critics of the new Bolívar biopic El Libertador, and from the liberties taken with historical fact in the film, which opened in the U.S. in October.
The Liberator is a joint Venezuelan-Spanish production charting the rise and fall of the legendary Venezuelan revolutionary, who helped free his home country, as well as modern-day Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, from Spanish rule. It’s in the running for Best Foreign Film at the February 2015 Oscars, and, with an estimated price tag of US$50m, it’s the most expensive movie ever made in Latin America.
Lead actor Édgar Ramírez showcases acting chops previously put to good use in the Carlos the Jackal series, a study of an ill-fated 1970s-era Venezuelan terrorist. But his beefy physique is somewhat at odds with the existing image of the regional hero. Contemporary portraits tend to depict Bolívar as a rather slight, elegant figure — his enemies alleged that the womanizing General spent a small fortune of public funds on cologne — even prior to the tuberculosis that did what Spanish bullets couldn’t.
The film similarly trades Bolívar’s ignominious end for a more sexed-up version, speculating that he was assassinated by political rivals.
A version more accurate in spirit, however, can be found in The General in His Labyrinth, the 1989 work in which Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez imagines Bolívar’s final days: the General, abandoned by all but a few aides-de-camp, drifts down the Magdalena river in a delirious fever, fleeing his collapsing pan-American dream for an uncertain exile in Europe before illness claims his life. “All who served the Revolution have ploughed the sea,” Bolívar is attested to have said before leaving Bogotá for the last time.
Such a downbeat ending probably wouldn’t have played well with audiences, nor with the flick’s Venezuelan funders, for whom the Bolivarian dream of a unified South America remains a rhetorical support. The suggestion of assassination echoes the claims of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who maintained that Bolívar was murdered by Colombian oligarchs.
This politicized version, though, misses the resonant lesson that Bolívar learned 200 years ago: an iron fist is no way to keep a country, still less a continent, together.
The authoritarian turn that Bolívar’s 11-year presidency of Gran Colombia eventually took is also glossed over in the film. It steers clear of unpalatable episodes such as the execution of Manuel Piar, a mestizo general who sought to secure the rights of non-whites in a revolution that was largely led by Europeanized, aristocratic elites.
Bolívar’s key generals such as Antonio José de Sucre scarcely get a look, with even less time given to the continent’s other revolutionary leaders, Argentina’s José de San Martín and Chile’s Bernardo O’Higgins. His Quiteña lover Manuela Sáenz, who foiled an 1828 assassination attempt on the General and provided vital support to his political and military campaigns, is largely passed over in favor of Bolívar’s wife, who died when he was just 20.
Bolívar is a hero that Latin Americans are rightly proud of, and his dream of a united continent from Mexico to the Strait of Magellan an inspiring, if ultimately impossible, idea. El Libertador is designed to be entertainment, and if it spreads awareness of the great man and his message in the process, so much the better. But let’s hope that the blockbuster brings in its a wake a more nuanced discussion about Bolívar’s legacy, and the successes and failures of the historical emancipation of the Americas as a whole.
Regardless of the film’s flaws, many will be willing the General on to one more victory in Los Angeles next February — even if the prize is a golden statuette, and not a continent.