Despite being dead for over 200 years, Simon Bolivar remains very much alive in the national consciousnesses of certain South American nations. In the early 1800s, Bolivar led territories within Spain’s Viceroyalty of New Granada to independence, paving the way for several present-day nations: Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. However, Bolivar didn’t actually want, nor initially establish, three states. After defeating the Spaniards, he united the former New Granadan territories into the Republic of Gran Colombia and further proceeded to conquer present-day Peru and Bolivia. Gran Colombia was a fractious nation, and Bolivar became increasingly authoritarian as he tried to maintain the union. Ultimately, he failed. After resigning the presidency in 1830, he planned to set sail for exile in Europe but died of tuberculosis before departing. He was 47.
The countries that sprouted up in Gran Colombia’s wake snapped up pieces of the Bolivar legend in order to cement their own legitimacy. While Bolivia most visibly carries the Boliviar namesake, it is Venezuela, Bolivar’s birthplace (whose official name is the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela”) that appears most eager to milk Bolivar’s legacy today. Especially given the nation’s diplomatic rows with the US and flagging economy, invoking Bolivar’s memory is a convenient way to apply a nationalist sedative to social pains. For example, in 2008 President Hugo Chavez launched an official inquiry to investigate if Bolivar was assassinated — despite overwhelming consensus that he did indeed die of tuberculosis. That’s not surprising, because Chavez’s overarching political ideology is called “Bolivarism“.
Another of Venezuela’s attempts to keep the Bolivarian flame burning is the 2014 biopic The Liberator. Starring Edgar Ramirez as Bolivar, the two-hour affair is heavy on the action hero and light on the nuance. Sweeping battle scenes and beautiful aerial shots across Andean landscapes provide an abundant feast for the eyes, and make the film very approachable. Bolivar is approachable too — in all the wrong ways. The Liberator‘s Bolivar character is too idealized and formulaic. In one moment he’s an articulate young man waxing Rousseau and Voltaire. In another he’s having sex with his hot young wife in a beautiful forest, as if he got tired of a biopic and jumped to a romance film.
The Liberator glosses over Bolivar’s deeper troubles and replaces them with the flaws of trope. Rather than someone who became increasingly totalitarian and frustrated as his country fractured, Bolivar is an ever-glorious advocate for “the people” who can stumble into a random village, assault someone’s son, and then inspire everyone–women and children included–to die for his cause (all this actually happens in the movie).
There are few moments where Bolivar receives blame or appears genuinely contrite. Instead, it seems like every other person around Bolivar is trying to screw him over (which admittedly has some, but not all, basis in fact). First there are incompetent generals, then there’s treasonous vice presidents, and finally there’s meddling foreign agents trying to control Gran Colombia’s financial system. To top it all off, the movie channels Hugo Chavez’s belief that Bolivar was assassinated, brushing off tuberculosis as misinformation from opponents. In a cult of personality, he upon the pedestal can only have “acceptable” flaws; any others, sickness included, are discarded upon others.
Without making too much of a value judgment, not all revolutions end up as clean-cut as the American Revolution, where you have George Washington stepping down after two terms and a country that has never had a military coup. Simon Bolivar is not George Washington; he belongs to another line of revolutionaries whose legacies play a more active role in their nations’ ongoing narratives — Ataturk, Mao Zedong, Sun Yat-sen. Such revolutionaries suffer from a paradox. Their stories are so much more interesting than Washington’s but, precisely because they are so interesting, are immensely difficult to tell — either someone doesn’t want them to be heard or they are too difficult to distill.
Bolivar from The Liberator could’ve been Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight but became Michael Bay’s Optimus Prime instead; he was the man Venezuela needed, but not the one it deserved. Still, in a darkly amusing sense, maybe a film with such unfulfilled potential was the best way to commemorate the life of a man who dreamed of ruling over a united Gran Colombia but ultimately fell short.
The Liberator (Spanish: Libertador)–Venezuela. Directed by Alberto Arvelo. First released July 2014. Running time 1hr 59min. Starring Edgar Ramirez, Maria Valverde, Juana Acosta, and Danny Huston.