Liberating the Truth

A Colombian actor decides to dump his role and become Símon Bolívar

The founding fathers of democracy, the greatest warriors and fearless revolutionaries who shaped modern societies and died for their causes, have been reduced, over centuries, to meaningless symbols that decorate parks and national plazas. Their bronze statues are seen in grand majesty throughout the world, but as the Colombian film Bolívar Soy Yo points out, whatever ideology a historical figure may represent has been sucked dry of meaning by corruption, political greed, and apathy. Only the city pigeons make good use of the patriotic statues -- for roosting spots and pissing.

Great heroic leaders do not exist today; all that is good and hopeful on a populist front has been defaced by the power-hungry and self-interest groups who use the images of historic or religious leaders, such as Simón Bolívar -- liberator of the South American continent from nineteenth-century Spanish royalists -- to buy credibility. They do this despite the fact that they thwart the ideology the symbol actually stood for. Modern history is an endless succession of lies and manipulations of truth. No wonder the world is so fucked up.

This is the dilemma Colombian soap opera star Santiago Miranda faces every day as he works on the set of the hottest show on television -- The Loves of the Liberator, a cheeseball series about Simón Bolívar, perhaps the most prominent historical figure in all of Latin America. Miranda (Robinson Diaz) can't take it any longer; he falls into fits when he realizes just how far the television version of the great liberator's life veers from historical fact.

Liberated from reality to become the great liberator
Liberated from reality to become the great liberator

His frustration finally explodes when he is forced to act out Bolívar's death in front of a firing squad. Instead of dramatizing Bolívar's dream of a united, democratic Grand Colombia, the soap focuses on the liberator's love life. His true allies and backstabbers have been reduced to tangential plot filler, and Manuelita Saenz (Amparo Grisales), one of Bolívar's 38 lovers, has been lifted to new historical heights as the leading heroine and love interest.

So the fact that the real Simón Bolívar died of tuberculosis in a sanitarium in Santa Marta, Colombia, instead of a firing squad in Caracas is trivial, according to the producers. After all, having the hero die in a hail of bullets is better for ratings, they argue. And besides, few viewers will even notice such minor details.

With the cameras rolling, just as the executioners take aim, Miranda breaks character and runs off the set. "We can't do this to the poor guy," he rumbles in a mad froth. Soon Miranda, still dressed as Bolívar, hitches a flight to Bogotá.

This is the start of a smart and fast-paced comedy by director Jorge Ali Triana which, in the tradition of the great Colombian magical realists, blurs the lines of reality and fiction to bring forth a greater political truth.

In the process of playing Bolívar, Miranda begins to pursue the general's dream of forming an egalitarian and united Colombia out of a turbulent and war-torn country. He marches in a military parade, then roams the streets of Bogotá giving chase to the producers, who lock him up in a mental ward. But once the real president of Colombia asks the producers to use Miranda for a publicity stunt at a diplomatic conference, the actor is released. He takes his opportunity to live out Bolívar's dream.

The absurd and quixotic tale questions the relevance of history in contemporary society and what a single man can do to make a difference. Robinson Diaz's performance as the actor-cum-liberator skirts the line between delusion and utter rationality. He embraces the role with humility and humor.

Bolívar is black comedy at its best, full of biting one-liners and believable surprises. It pokes fun at the fictionalized versions of history (which seem to appear all too frequently) and our modern-day, out-of-touch society that seems to prefer a Disneyfied version of history to the real thing.

 
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