Film Review – The Liberator

The Liberator

The Liberator

Sadly, I must admit that I do not know much about South American history. After watching The Liberator (2013), I don’t feel like I’ve learned that much more. Clearly, the history of the continent is rich with stories of oppression, revolution, violence and hope running throughout. The film – written by Timothy J. Sexton and directed by Alberto Arvelo – provides glimpses into the events that shaped the countries involved. However, as a historical drama and biography of the revolutionary/freedom fighter Simon Bolivar, it only skims the surface. There is a mechanical, step-by-step process in how the story unfolds, it knows what notes to play but doesn’t know the rhythm. As such, we’re left with a kind of emptiness when the lights come on.

The one thing the filmmakers got right – and boy did they nail this on the head – was the casting of the main character. Édgar Ramírez is simply electric as a performer. He dominates the screen, whether he is speaking Spanish, French, or English, he commands our attention and does not relinquish it. When Bolivar gives an inspirational speech to fellow countrymen right before a battle against the Spanish Empire, he nearly shivers with energy and fervor. Ramirez plays Bolivar with contrasting traits: from early romantic naïveté, to heartbroken anguish and unyielding determination, there isn’t an acting choice that comes across as false.

Liberator Movie Still 1

His work here calls to mind his role as Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, aka “Carlos The Jackal” in Olivier AssayasCarlos (2010). In both, Ramirez plays characters bent on changing the political structure through force and willpower. But while Carlos was considered one of the world’s most notorious terrorists, Simon Bolivar is seen as one of the most important figures in South American history. Amazing how one person can believably play both characters with such differing tones.

Unfortunately, The Liberator is not as good a film as Carlos. Here is a situation where the central performance lifts the material to be better than it should be. In terms of narrative, the plot bounces and skips along, presenting information on Bolivar’s life like a book report instead of an emotional journey. We see him travel from Venezuela to Spain to France, his relationships with women, the political ties and allegiances he created against the Empire. He used the French and American Revolutions as the basis to help South America break away from Spain. But all the while, we never get a deeper sense into the kind of person Bolivar was. He is painted as an ideological symbol than a flesh and blood human being. We get a little background into his marriage with Maria Theresa Bolivar (Maria Valverde), but those scenes are mostly shot under dreamy, hazy romanticism.

The supporting characters are only faces and names, bearing no dimension or unique qualities. One character stands out as a prime example. Torkington (Danny Huston) is an English banker who acts sometimes as a friend and supporter to Bolivar. Huston does what he can with so little of a character. Torkington doesn’t really exist within the story, but makes frequent visits. He occasionally gives advice, debates philosophies, and questions Bolivar’s military campaigns and political decisions. I almost started to wonder if Torkington was some kind of ghost or spirit, because he pops up out of nowhere so frequently into Bolivar’s life (and in so many different places), that he had to have some sort of magical teleporting power.

Liberator Movie Still 2

The art direction and the scope of the production are impressive. We get an idea of how big this story was, and how many different cultures played a part in it. There is a strong distinction when Bolivar visits different countries, with the costumes and set pieces providing ample support. Even better is how tangible the environments felt. In an extended sequence, Bolivar leads a group of soldiers (comprised of men, women and children) through the snowy peaks of the Andes Mountains. Whether it was through practical or digital effects, the journey across the region was very convincing. Arvelo takes advantage of long distance shots to magnify the group lined up against the mountainside. This is arguably the most memorable scene, as we watch these people – who were obviously ill prepared – tackle such an overwhelming obstacle.

What hinders The Liberator is its reliance on well-established storytelling tropes within its genre. Stylistically it’s accomplished, and Ramirez’s performance comes close to redeeming the whole thing all on its own. But when we step away, we can see how the execution is all too familiar. Whenever an emotional monologue is delivered, it’s backed by a sweeping musical score telling us exactly how we should be reacting. The battle scenes appear rushed, disappearing out of mind almost as quickly as they’re introduced. And the plot starts off with the recycled “flashback” setup to show us how we arrived to a certain point in Bolivar’s life. I really wanted to like this film more than I did, but the flaws were a bit too noticeable to ignore.




Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

You can reach Allen via email or Twitter

View all posts by this author