Four years ago, Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez, who’d previously made a brief but memorable appearance as an assassin in The Bourne Ultimatum, held the screen for five solid hours in the title role of Carlos, one of the most galvanizing biopics in recent memory. That’s a testament to Ramírez’s blistering charisma as an actor, but it’s also largely attributable to Carlos’ director, Olivier Assayas, and his singular vision regarding terrorist Carlos The Jackal. For proof, look no further than The Liberator, in which Ramírez plays legendary 19th-century freedom fighter Simón Bolívar, the man primarily responsible for ending three centuries of Spanish rule over much of South America. It’s an equally fiery, magnetic star turn, but being trapped in a stolid, unimaginative, and simplistic example of the genre—a typical historical biopic, in other words—saps a surprising amount of its strength.
Right from the start, The Liberator looks like televisual hackwork, despite an impressive budget. The film opens in 1828, with Bolívar desperately fleeing an assassination attempt—got to grab people’s attention!—then flashes back some 30 years to trace his entire adult life (during which he never visibly ages, apart from growing some muttonchops). Born to a rich, aristocratic family, Bolívar was nonetheless groomed for rebellion by professor and mentor Don Simón Rodríguez (Francisco Denis), and after an idyllic early marriage to a woman (María Valverde) who died young of yellow fever, he used his wealth to buy a private army and start liberating northern South America. Ultimately, he became the president of a short-lived republic now called Gran Colombia (to distinguish it from present-day Colombia), which also included parts of what would become Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Guyana, and Brazil.
Venezuelan director Alberto Arvelo, who previously worked with Ramírez on Cyrano Fernandez (a modern-day riff on the work of Cyrano De Bergerac), clearly intended to make a quasi-mythic portrait of his country’s birth. While it might rouse patriots, however, The Liberator is largely stillborn as drama and utterly useless as a character study. Screenwriter Timothy J. Sexton (Children Of Men) never finds a compelling thematic subtext for Bolívar’s story—as depicted here, it amounts to, “Well, the love of my life dropped dead, so I guess I may as well overthrow Spain”—and Arvelo’s lackluster visual sense robs even the most passionate speeches (well delivered by Ramírez) of their urgency. Much of the film is shot handheld, for no apparent reason except that Arvelo believes some mild jitter will convey excitement.
Meanwhile, Arvelo and Sexton’s joint mythopoetic urge eventually crosses the line into complete bullshit. Bolívar died in bed at 47, officially of tuberculosis. The Liberator’s final scene and closing titles, however, strongly imply that he was murdered—not even by slow poisoning, as Hugo Chávez insisted (for which there is no concrete evidence, despite extensive post-mortem efforts), but because he bravely demands to be shot rather than surrender to hypothetical traitors. Assayas, by contrast, scrupulously depicted Carlos The Jackal’s mundane capture while recovering from testicular surgery, and Carlos was all the more riveting for it. Assayas also brought style and vision, both sorely lacking here. There’s really no substitute.