ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A new film from Venezuela called "The Liberator" opens in the U.S. this week. It's a sweeping biopic about Simon Bolivar and it's one of the most expensive films ever produced in Latin America. Bolivar was a founding father of independent South America, but he remains relatively unknown to most North Americans, we hear from NPR's Bilal Qureshi.
BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Simon Bolivar was called the George Washington of Latin America. In less than 15 years, the Venezuelan leader liberated what became six countries from Spanish rule.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LIBERATOR")
EDGAR RAMIREZ: (As Simon Bolivar, speaking foreign language).
QURESHI: Today, Bolivar's vision of a united Latin America still inspires politicians, activists and artists.
ALBERTO ARVELO: It's this energy that people felt - that's still alive.
QURESHI: Alberto Arvelo directed "The Liberator."
ARVELO: We didn't understand, in the beginning, why we don't have a film about Simon Bolivar. I mean, that's incredible.
QURESHI: "The Liberator" is an adventure story made for the big screen. It has rousing speeches, battle scenes and stunning landscapes. Think "Braveheart" meets "The Jungle."
Director Alberto Arvelo says Latin America itself is one of the central characters in Bolivar's story.
ARVELO: He liberated a territory that starts in the Caribbean in Margarita Island, for example and gets to the heart of the Andes. He rode on horseback more than 70,000 miles. So that's a fundamental part of his saga, somehow.
QURESHI: Simon Bolivar is played by actor Edgar Ramirez.
RAMIREZ: In a way, it felt like we were going to a journey towards our own identity through the nature.
QURESHI: Ramirez is a rising star of both independent and Hollywood cinema and "The Liberator" is designed for a global audience. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, has an international cast and has original music composed by Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel.
QURESHI: Daniel Battsek is releasing the film in the U.S. He says in addition to targeting art house crowds "The Liberator" is being marketed to this country's Spanish-speaking communities.
DANIEL BATTSEK: And just sort of felt that, given the fact that there is definitely a Hispanic audience that is growing in this country, that we could play a crossover. We could play it both as an art house film, but also as a film for that community.
QURESHI: So the film will premiere in Amarillo and El Paso, Texas on the same day it opens in New York and LA. "The Liberator" was recently screened at the American Film Institute, where it was introduced by writer Marie Arana.
MARIE ARANA: In cinematic ways, it was a beautiful film and then there's the matter of history; the small matter of history.
QURESHI: Arana wrote a major biography of Simon Bolivar and she hadn't seen the film before she was asked to introduce it. She was disappointed. For one, she says lead actor Edgar Ramirez looks nothing like Simon Bolivar.
ARANA: He was a physically slight man. He was, you know, five-foot-six, barely 130 pounds. He had a very meager chest. He had spindly legs. He had hands that were small and delicate like a woman's, almost. And the figure that we see on the screen in Edgar Ramirez is big, handsome, you know, chunky-hunky, you know (laughter)?
QURESHI: Arana says timelines are wrong and Bolivar's political complexity is flattened to empty speeches. She says it's important to get Bolivar's story right because of all the ways it's been wronged.
ARANA: In the past 200 years since Bolivar died, his legacy has been manipulated in so many ways. I mean, two Venezuelan presidents exhumed his bones and reburied him and tried to cloak themselves in his glory. [POST PRODUCTION CORRECTION: In the audio and previous Web version of this story, it is said that two Venezuelan presidents exhumed Simon Bolivar's body. In fact, three Venezuelan presidents have done that.] And the right has taken him - you know, Francisco Franco, who was right-wing dictator of Spain and Augusto Pinochet, who was the right-wing dictator of Chile took him as their hero. And so did the revolutionaries like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
So this is a life that has been used for many purposes.
QURESHI: One of the ideas the film gets right, Arana says, is the multiracial face of Bolivar's revolution. On screen, as in real life, Bolivar sees a colonial system steeped in inequality, racial hierarchy and slavery.
His conscience is shaken and he begins his mission to abolish slavery and integrate the races. The Bolivar on screen dances with slaves, lives in jungles among the Indians and rallies for their cause in European capitals.
For actor Edgar Ramirez, those images still matter.
RAMIREZ: One of the greatest debates in Latin America will always be the social gap between the rich people and the poor people and that is one of the things that we inherited from the Spanish rule, you know, from colonial times. That were so many privileges within the colonial system given by social position and by racial background that I think has affected the way our societies have developed. And Bolivar was very aware of that.
QURESHI: Ramirez says because of Simon Bolivar's impassioned campaign for abolition, his story in South America is connected to the North American story.
RAMIREZ: Abolition had already started - the process had already started already in South America three or four decades before Lincoln's time. But those three generations - Washington, Bolivar and Lincoln; they are probably the greatest generations that this entire continent has ever given and their values of enlightenment were completely carried out by these generations.
QURESHI: "The Liberator" is an imperfect film, says Bolivar biographer Marie Arana. But it is an entry point for people in this country to understand the man and the landscape that made modern Latin America. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.