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Toronto Film Review: ‘The Liberator’

This impressively scaled chronicle of the life and times of Simon Bolivar lacks the spark that would make it a great biopic rather than a competent one.

With:
Edgar Ramirez, Maria Valverde, Erich Wildpret, Iwan Rheon, Juana Acosta, Manuel Porto, Alejandro Furth, Imanol Arias, Danny Huston, Orlando Valenzuela, Andres Gertrudix, Gary Lewis, Francisco Denis. (Spanish, English, French dialogue)

The Liberator” is an impressively scaled chronicle of the life and times of Simon Bolivar, hero of South American anti-colonialist struggles in the early 19th century. This latest collaboration between “Carlos” star Edgar Ramirez and Venezuelan director Alberto Arvelo (following “Cyrano Fernandez”) is a respectable, sprawling endeavor that covers nearly three decades of tumultuous events. Yet it lacks that essential spark that would turn it into a great biopic rather than a competent one, and make history seem alive rather than merely illustrated. The purported $50 million indie production is a guaranteed classroom perennial, though its immediate global B.O. prospects are harder to predict.

“Children of Men” scribe Timothy J. Sexton’s screenplay begins with Bolivar (Ramirez) narrowly escaping an attempt on his life — one of many — in 1828. It then rewinds to the century’s start, when he is an aristocratic youth from the province of Venezuela visiting the royal Spanish court. There he makes a terrible if accidental error in etiquette by thwacking effete future king Prince Ferdinand (Andres Gertrudix) in the face during a badminton match. On the plus side, he also meets Maria-Theresa del Toro (Maria Valverde), whisks her back to his “savage” birthplace, and experiences six months of wedded bliss before she dies of yellow fever.

Disconsolate, he returns to Europe to drown his sorrows in the decadent pleasures of Paris. But he’s pulled out of that funk by radical thinker and erstwhile tutor Simon Rodriguez (Francisco Denis), who excoriates his self-absorption and urges Bolivar to see himself as the man who might free his homeland and other South American territories from their often brutal 300-year colonial rule.

Using family wealth to fund a small initial rebel army, he steadily gains allies — as well as the increasing ire of Spain, whose mighty military forces endeavor time and again to crush this resistance movement. In 1819 Bolivar becomes president of Gran Columbia, his dreamt-of South American republic uniting liberated Spanish colonies in the continent’s northern regions. But political infighting and Spain’s continued aggression ultimately doomed this noble venture, which dissolved in late 1830 — just months after Bolivar was finally snared in a successful (if still somewhat murky) assassination plot.

The film’s brisk progress covers a lot of ground — literally, as our hero is nearly always on the move — and by necessity, the subsidiary figures who come and go are etched in broad terms. They include Gen. Miranda (Manuel Porto), a military strategist whom Bolivar comes to view as a traitor to the cause; some more lastingly loyal collaborators (Erich Wildpret, Iwan Rheon and Gary Lewis); defeated royalist Gen. Monteverde (Imanol Arias); Manuela Saenz (Juana Acosta), the socialite sympathizer who becomes Bolivar’s mistress; and Torkington (Danny Huston), a fictive British banker representing those offshore interests willing to fund a revolution if they can eventually profit from it.

Well mounted and cast, “The Liberator” has all the right surface attributes yet never quite transcends its solid, slightly impersonal professionalism. Despite myriad dramatic real-life incidents, several important battle scenes and some truly large-canvas moments involving umpteen extras, there are no memorable setpieces here. Perhaps intimidated by the project’s legendary subject and great expense, Arvelo never risks bold stylistic choices or otherwise asserts a strong directorial viewpoint.

Similarly, Ramirez does an entirely respectable job limning Bolivar’s idealism, bravery and natural leadership qualities, but the man himself remains elusive , more icon than flesh-and-blood being. Of course, some lives are lived so large they defy conventional dramatization, no matter how conscientious the attempt. (Even Kubrick eventually gave up on his Napoleon biopic as a sinkhole of logistical and thematic ambition.) Result ends up a colorful timeline lacking only emotional involvement and that most intangible quality, soul.

The widescreen 35mm-lensed production’s money is all onscreen, with tech and design contributions uniformly thoughtful if never particularly striking.

Toronto Film Review: 'The Liberator'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 11, 2013. Running time: 118 MIN. Original title: "Libertador"

Production: (Venezuela-Spain) A San Mateo Films and Producciones Insurgents presentation in association with Silver Screen and WMG Film. (International sales: Mundial, Mexico City. ) Produced by Ana Loehnert, Winfried Hammacher, Alberto Arvelo. Executive producers, Edgar Ramirez, Maria A. Guerrero Rocca. Co-producer, Jose Luis Escolar.

Crew: Directed by Alberto Arvelo. Screenplay, Timothy J. Sexton. Camera (color, widescreen), Xavi Giminez; editor, Tariq Anwar; music, Gustavo Dudamel; production designer, Paul Denham Austerberry; costume designer, Sonia Grande; supervising art director, Benjamin Fernandez; set decorator, Philippe Turlure; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital/Datasat), Antonio Bloch; sound designers, Jonathan Wales, Jay Nierenberg; stunt coordinator, Lee Michael Sheward; assistant director, Rene U. Villarreal; second unit director, Sheward; casting, Jina Jay, Laura Cepeda, Beto Benites.

With: Edgar Ramirez, Maria Valverde, Erich Wildpret, Iwan Rheon, Juana Acosta, Manuel Porto, Alejandro Furth, Imanol Arias, Danny Huston, Orlando Valenzuela, Andres Gertrudix, Gary Lewis, Francisco Denis. (Spanish, English, French dialogue)

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