Biopic Martyrdom: the Legacy of Simon Bolívar in South America

At an International Cinema Lecture, Mac J. Wilson introduced the Venezuelan biopic The Liberator and discussed its inaccuracies, attributes and controversial reception in South America.

1280px-La_Muerte_del_Libertador_-_Antonio_Herrera_ToroPROVO, Utah (Sept. 6, 2016)—On Sixth Avenue near New York South Central Park, also known as the Avenue of the Americas, stands an imposing horseman on a black granite pedestal. The inscription: Simon Bolívar—el Libertador. At a recent International Cinema lecture entitled “Biopic of a Dream: Bolívar and América,” Assistant Professor of Spanish Mac J. Wilson discussed the mildly controversial 2013 biopic, The Liberator, and the man behind the Bolivarian dream of independence and unification.

“Bolívar, I would argue, is one of those problematic figures in history because of what he symbolizes for not only Venezuelans, but Colombians, and for any of those in the Spanish Americas that would like more transnational union” Wilson said.

He added that the production of the film was in part a political decision, and that it was one of the most expensive Latin American movies made in recent history. As the central founding father of the northern region of South America, Bolívar played a significant role in establishing the independence of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Panama during the early 19th century. He is a beloved figure not only in the northern region of South America, but throughout all of Spanish America as well.

Wilson spoke of the film’s beauty and success, including the wonderful music created by the celebrated Venezuelan maestro, Gustavo Dudamel, and the expansive cinematography of the diverse Colombian and Venezuelan landscapes. Alberto Alvero, the director, and his team did well enough, in fact, to win The Liberator a spot on a finalist list for a foreign language Academy Award nomination. Yet the 2013 film depicting the life of this celebrated military and political leader was not received without some controversy, in large part due to its perceived inaccuracies. “When you do a biopic, it’s going to be controversial,” Wilson explained. “It has been accused of several inaccuracies. It’s got to be hard to write a movie about a man that’s so important to not only many nations, but the whole idea of América.”

He continued, “Like any other film of a real person, [when] creating a narrative of a life you have to make narrative choices. There’s a bit of a hero’s journey here. Bolívar was orphaned, he went into despair through the death of his wife, he was woken up out of his pit by an enlightened teacher and came to glory, and in the end, at least in the movie, he succumbs to a martyr’s death, and that is one of the most pointed at and referenced inaccuracies of the film.”

Theories about Bolívar’s death have played an interesting role in his legacy in South America. While many believe he died of tuberculosis, others would like to believe he died a martyr. For example, in order to connect himself with the legacy of Bolívar, Wilson said that the former president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez “brought him back in a very visceral way—exhuming his body in front of live cameras. It was to prove how he died, looking for a way to make him a martyr.”

Chávez has also used Bolívar’s legacy by going as far as renaming the country of the Republic of Venezuela to the Bolívarian Republic of Venezuela. Chavez’s policies and legacy has led to what Wilson points to as civil unrest in Venezuela. Many Venezuelans feel that Chávez and his political allies like the current president Nicolás Maduro have appropriated the legacy of Bolívar for their own political and cultural purposes.

“Though this film is about a founding father, it is very relevant today. And because of its relevance, it has been scrutinized for both its production and its inaccuracies,” Wilson concluded. “And when you’re watching the film, remember the importance of Bolívar, not only back then for independence, but even as a very important figure today.”

—Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

Sylvia covers events for the Department of Spanish and Portuguese for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a double major in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.

Image: La Muerte del Libertador by Antonio Herrera Toro. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.