To call Alberto Arvelo’s epic saga “The Liberator” and ambitious project might be a baffling understatement. The Venezuelan filmmaker
undertook his most challenging project to date with the vision to transform his country’s most beloved historical figure into a tangible, flesh-and-bone
man for people to connect with in the 21st century. Not only is this the most expensive film ever made in Latin American, but the fact that it
was achieved solely with Venezuelan and Spanish resources allowed Arvelo to keep the project’s integrity. One of the most important elements that needed to be kept intact was the language. This film had to be in Spanish.
Simon Bolivar, played here by rising Hollywood star Édgar Ramírez , sought to liberate Latin America from Spanish control and to unify it into a single, powerful
country. His dream of unification was never achieved, but his ideals remained as a pillar of wisdom all across the continent. Given the magnitude of the
hero being portrayed, Arvelo faced tremendous obstacles to craft a film that would be at the level of a major studio production in terms of scope and
technical proficiency, while at the same time presenting an authentic and personal depiction of this period in history.
Released theatrically in the U.S. by Cohen Media Group earlier this year, “The Liberator” is now Venezuela’s Official Submission for the Best Foreign
Language Film Academy Award. Alberto Arvelo talked to us recently about the responsibility of helming this film, working with fellow Venezuelan Edgar
Ramirez, and his vision of Bolivar.
Aguilar: As a Venezuelan, did you feel any pressure making a film about your’ countries greatest historical figure? Did you always want to make a film like this?
Alberto Arvelo: It’s a great responsibility to make a film about a figure as iconic as Simón Bolívar. Part of the problem is what Tim Sexton realized when we started
working on the project: everybody has their own version of Bolívar, and it’s impossible to satisfy each of those visions. Some consider that the most
important part of his life is his independence exploits, other consider that it is his life as a statesman. Simón Bolívar is the classic product of
Romanticism and each one of those facets are important to understand him. Ever since I decided to make movies one of my dreams has been to make a film
about the saga for independence in South America.
Aguilar: This is the most expensive film ever made in Latin America, how difficult was it to get it done, and get it done right since it is a period piece?
Alberto Arvelo: “The Liberator” has been a great effort, an effort of years, almost a decade’s worth of work. Historical films are a particularly difficult genre, because they
involve conscientious work by many artists specialized in that genre. There was a great collective effort around the exploration of a period that has not
been often recreated for the movies, which is Latin America in the XIX century.
Aguilar: The cinematography is gorgeous; it adds a certain unique elegance. What was your approach, and your cinematographer’s of course, in realizing this
Alberto Arvelo: Xavi Giménez and I always wanted to veer away from beautiful historical movies. We were not interested in a perfect –and distant– recreation of Bolívar; we
were interested, rather, in recreating a more contemporary visual language, more daring, more poetic, let’s say. Xavi was very interested in the strength
and rawness of the light in the tropics. We experimented a lot with the light. In the process, Xavi fell in love with an extraordinary post-impressionist
Venezuelan painter from the XX century called Armando Reverón. Somehow, a large part of his work is a tribute to the light of Master Reverón.
Aguilar: In film of such epic proportions about an icon, did you find it hard to still create a human character out of Bolivar? Someone outside of the history
books with flaws, hopes, to which people could related.
Alberto Arvelo: The intention was to separate the character from the myth of Bolívar, to make him into a man, with all his limitations, his sympathies, his fears. The
danger when working with great historical figures is that we end up facing concepts, not men of flesh and bone. These conceptual characters lack defects,
weaknesses or dark areas and become perfectly good, perfectly just or perfectly virtuous. Reality is always different, it’s not black or white, it wanders
in the gray areas, with more or less light. I feel that today’s filmgoers do not want to see concepts, they want to see human beings. An idolized Bolívar
never interested me, because it felt vapid, empty, untrue. In the film we tried to show a more real dimension to the character. I believe that Timothy J. Sexton
did an outstanding job in that sense.
Alberto Arvelo: The Independence of South America was a collective effort, not the product of a single man. Although Bolívar brilliantly aggregated all that energy, at the
end of the day it was a movement which was developing much earlier before he burst into the political scene. In the film we show how his discourse somehow
takes shape and builds up thanks to the contributions and inspiration of other characters. The phrases that make up the heart of his discourse, for
instance, are first uttered by Francisco de Miranda, one of the most prominent and important figures of the South American Independence movement, also
known as the Forefather. We put on the table the inspiration that Bolívar received, not only from him, but also from other characters reflected in the
film, such as the controversial Simón Rodríguez, one of his teachers. In the film we also give proper weight to the women who accompanied him through his
life, leaving in him a prominent mark.
Aguilar: Something I thought was incredibly was the bold presentation of Bolivar’s ideas. He wanted the unification of Latin America and was suspicious of the
world’s empires intentions (England, France, Spain). Did you ever think making a point of this would be risky, or did you feel it was important to be true
to the character?
Alberto Arvelo: To speak of Bolívar, Artigas, or of San Martín, is to speak of the independence struggles of South America, so it means to speak about the ideas that drove
the confrontation with Spain and European dominance. I feel it would be hard to understand Washington or Jefferson without exploring the confrontation they
created against the traditional European powers. It was interesting as well to explore the fact that from South America that movement was perceived as a
war of independence, but from Spain’s POV what was happening instead was a civil war. Let’s not forget that Bolívar was born in Caracas, in the Kingdom of
Aguilar: Can you tell us about your experience working with Edgar Ramirez; he seems to embody the character perfectly. Was he always in your mind as the ideal
choice for the role?
Alberto Arvelo: I worked with Edgar before. I always thought that the actor who would play Bolívar would have to be a person with a very strong body language (all the
reports from chroniclers of the time mention the intensity of his gaze and of his character.) I thought I’d need an actor who could move comfortably from
action scenes to scenes with strong emotional baggage. Besides, we wanted, as much as possible, characters represented by actors of the same nationality.
Considering those ingredients, a clear choice surfaced: Edgar Ramírez. Edgar and I worked together on other projects, and I would do it again: he’s an
actor who gives his all in every take. It’s a pleasure to work with someone like that.
Aguilar: Has the film been seen by audiences back in your home country? What was the reaction?
Alberto Arvelo: Tickets sold out in every theater of the entire country during the first week it showed. The people’s reaction has been quite positive. People leave
excited about being able to see their own history in a movie theater.
Aguilar: A period piece of this magnitude with some incredible landscapes, costumes, battle sequences, and above all based on a real person. What were the
biggest challenges from a directional point of view?
Alberto Arvelo: The battles, undoubtedly. We made a very careful storyboard of each shot of the battles and even an animated recreation with a bit of music. I worked quite
a bit with Xavi Giménez and the rest of the team, on a raw, credible visual language, where the fear and bewilderment would be a striking element of the
battle. We tried to make the battle tell us small stories which would connect directly with feeling.
Aguilar: Can you tell me about the process of researching Bolivar’s life and this period in history? Did you do your own research or did you see what Timothy
Sexton put in his screenplay and then went from there?
Alberto Arvelo: I worked with Tim quite a bit on historical research. We read together many of the most important biographies and we absorbed everything that we could get
our hands on. We explored the possibility of narrating the movie from the point of view of some of the character’s detractors, but in the end Tim decided
to narrate the film from Bolívar’s POV. I’ve always been attracted to Tim’s disruptive and contemporary vision – he saw the movie more like a thriller than
a historical piece.