General Simón Bolívar is one of the Americas' greatest revolutionary heroes, but you won't find elaborate accounts of his feats and ideologies in U.S. history books.
The Venezuelan-born aristocrat, who lived from 1783 to 1830, is perhaps the single most important military strategist in the history of Latin America. Bolívar played a role in allowing present-day Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and parts of Bolivia to gain their independence from the Spanish Empire. He later became a political leader who dreamed of a unified Latin America. He was known as "The Liberator," a title that Venezuelan director Alberto Arvelo borrowed last year for his biopic based on Bolívar's exploits in the Americas.
"The Liberator" was released in Venezuela earlier this year, and opened in limited release in the U.S. on Friday. Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez ("Zero Dark Thirty," "Clash of the Titans"), who stars as the iconic leader, spoke to The Huffington Post about why every American should know Simón Bolívar's story, and why Arvelo's film strays from the historically accepted account of Bolívar's death.
The Spanish-language movie features the lush landscapes of Venezuela, with panoramic shots of the Canaima National Park, Choroní Beach and the Andes. While much of the colonial town scenes were filmed in Spain. The screenplay was written by Timothy J. Sexton ("Children Of Men"), and acclaimed Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, provided the score, marking his first work for film.
"The Liberator," one of the largest and most expensive independent productions ever to come out of South America, is also Venezuela's official Oscar submission for this year.
Take a look at what Ramírez, who also executive produced the project, said about the film.
The film starts with this text:
Simón Bolívar fought over 100 battles against the Spanish Empire in South America. He rode over 70,000 miles on horseback. His military campaigns covered twice the territory of Alexander the Great. His army never conquered -- it liberated.
Simón Bolívar was clearly a huge figure in the history of the Americas. Why do you think it's taken so long to make a film of this magnitude based on his life?
I think it's due to different factors. A major one is that Bolívar's army, as we say at the beginning of the film, covered an area that was geographically huge. You have to consider that the distance between Caracas and Potosí in Bolivia could be equivalent to the area between Mongolia and France. They are enormous distances, [which] Bolívar covered at least four times in his lifetime and by horse ... Obviously to be able to have that on film, and try to capture the scale and [the] spectacular trip that they made during those years, you had to find a way to mature the industry in Latin America and find the resources to tell that story.
On the other hand, Bolívar has always been a figure that, even while alive, had already become a legend. And obviously, humanizing, exploring and dismantling the myths takes time.
He is definitely regarded as mythical. Was the film's goal to portray Simón Bolívar the man, or Simón Bolívar the hero?
I think that also took time -- trying to dismantle the myth and tell a story in which we could explore the more personal aspects of the man that Bolívar could have been, behind the myth. Basically, the movie doesn't try to be a photograph. It's impossible to be a photograph, because there are no photographs of Bolívar, there are no records, no records of audio, no record of video. The only thing we have are his letters, but no one talks like they write. Right? The written language is different than the spoken language.
In the end, biopics don't mimic. A biopic evokes. This film is the evocation of the humanity that could have been behind the legend of Simón Bolívar. That's how I see it as an actor, anyway. And I also base it on my previous experiences portraying characters from the past and that still exist, like [Venezuelan terrorist] Carlos the Jackal and recently [Panamanian boxer] Roberto Duran, who are alive. There are videos of them, there are records. With Bolívar it was a work of complete imagination and empathy, and trying to put myself in the shoes of a 19th-century man trying to change his world.
So how did you go about figuring out who Bolívar the man could have been?
There is one thing that most historical accounts and biographies agree on, and that's that he was a very impulsive man. He was guided by impulses and passions and he himself would say his impulsiveness was one of his greatest virtues and at the same time a flaw. It was a characteristic in his personality that led him to take risks that would have been, and truly were, unthinkable for any man of his time. So I tried to rely on impulse when I was interpreting the character, trying not to think too much about the scenes or the texts or the camera angles and just let myself be guided by empathy.
Apart from figuring out those personal intricacies that could have shaped Bolívar as a man, what was another struggle you had during filming?
This film is told from the point of view of Bolívar, which meant that as an actor I had to be in every single one of the movie's scenes, which was an interesting challenge from the narrative point of view. I mean, for over five months I was living in the 19th century. I slept five or six hours [a night], and the rest of the time I was filming 14 hours a day with four layers of clothing and seven people always around holding my sword and my cape and taking care of my horse.
In the end it was a script, as I was saying, that was written from the point of view of Bolívar. It attempts to be a fictional approximation. We are not a documentary by any means, or a history lesson. A history lesson wasn't the intention of the film, and personally I don't think it should be the film's objective.
(Caution: Spoilers follow.)
On that note, something that did catch my attention was Bolívar's death. The historically accepted version of his death is that after his 1828 assassination attempt and fall-off in political popularity, he died in Santa Marta from tuberculosis before he could set sail to Europe to live out his days. But in the film, his death is portrayed very differently. While there is mention of the tuberculosis, the film delves into the theory that Bolívar was actually assassinated by his enemies in Nueva Granada and his illness was just a cover-up.
The assassination theory was made most popular by the late President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who had Bolívar's body exhumed in 2010 to find evidence. The results of the exhumation, however, were inconclusive. So I'm just curious as to why the film decided to present this version of his death.
Well, I think while talking to Timothy Sexton, who wrote the screenplay, he defended the option of having an ending that was much more open and somehow maintained the [audience's] attention until the last moment and left the viewer hanging in a type of vortex of emotions. I think that this ending is stronger, more climactic, more provocative and more dramatic, like cinema tends to be.
In reality, in the end, the film doesn't tell you how Bolívar died. The film opens a spectrum of possibilities so that the viewer can be moved emotionally and can decide for him or herself ... It's also a film about the life of Bolívar, not the death of Bolívar. So the decision about the film's ending was made from a creative standpoint.
What's something you took away from the film about this period in Latin American history?
We filmed for five weeks in Venezuela and approximately 10 weeks in Spain. Obviously it sounds ironic and contradictory to film a movie about Simón Bolívar in Spain, but in the end, you realize that the Latin American independence wars were really one big civil war within the Spanish Empire. We can't forget that Bolívar, [Francisco] Santander, [José de] San Martín and all of them were born in Spain [...] so it's about recognizing that. Very few Spaniards are aware of that. I wasn't aware of that. And through this film we began to become aware of it, that it was truly a great civil war within the Spanish Empire.
The movie was released in Venezuela a few weeks ago, but it's just arriving in the U.S. now. What do you hope a U.S. audience can take away from the film?
It would be interesting if they become interested in finding out more about who Simón Bolívar was -- and through that, gain a better understanding of the historical process that not only Latin America went through, but the entire American continent. There is one thing that isn't often taught to us in Latin America or here in North America, and that's how deeply interconnected and related the independence [wars] on both sides of the Rio Grande were.
I mean, in the end, Washington and Jefferson's generation, Bolívar's generation and later Lincoln's generation were all interconnected. The ideas that brought about the American Revolution, then the French and later the Latin American revolutions, were all connected ... It was approximately three generations of incredibly brilliant men who dreamed of a new world and created it, some one way and others another. But the status quo of this entire continent changed.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Bolívar's assassination attempt occurred in 1928, the attempt was in 1828. Also, the sentence referencing filming "in colonial towns in Spain" has been changed to reflect that scenes of the colonial towns were shot largely in Spain.