Bolivar: An Admirable Docudrama

As part of my studying of Spanish, in addition to grammar exercises, I have been watching Spanish-language movies and television programs. This is what brought me to the 2019 Columbian docudrama Bolivar: una lucha admirable (Bolivar: an admirable fight), available on Netflix. I sampled several of Netflix’s Spanish offerings and realized that many of them are merely Spanish-language versions of universal genres such as rom-coms, soap operas, and crime dramas. I tried Bolivar because I was interested in the story of a man whose name is universally known, but whom I knew very little about.

Bolivar as Political Drama

Bolivar comprises 60 hour-long episodes, so watching it represents a major time commitment. I watched it, generally at sunset, through the entire winter and it was a great segue from work to dinner.

I checked the story Bolivar presents against Simon Bolivar’s biography on Wikipedia and found that the docudrama incorporates all the essential elements: a privileged childhood, marriage to his first love and her tragic death, a dissolute young adulthood in Europe, return to Venezuela and radicalization, enormous military success that led to his being called “el Libertador,” the growing difficulty of governing impoverished former colonies, a near assassination, and death from tuberculosis.

Unlike some of the docudrama’s critics, I appreciated that the showrunners decided on a multi-genre approach that incorporated both political and military history and telenovela. I wasn’t looking for a deep dive into political history, for example the arguments between Bolivar and his opponents about the best constitutional structure for Gran Colombia (the short-lived union of what is now Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia), which seems a bit too Canadian. And the military sequences involve bloody hand-to-hand combat and very little is spoken, which defeats my purpose.

Bolivar as Telenovela

The series includes the drama of Bolivar’s complicated family of origin at the outset and at the end it creates a large imagined “extended family” of veterans of Bolivar’s liberation army who have moved to Bogota to live normal post-heroic lives. They include an executioner in the Spanish regime trying to hide his past; a former prostitute trying to hide her dishonour while exercising newly acquired skills as a seamstress and teacher; a painter who becomes Bolivar’s official portraitist, accompanying el Libertador on numerous campaigns, much to the chagrin of his wife and young daughter; and a perpetually disappointed office-seeker who channels his anger into abusing his wife. I found these intertwined human stories compelling. This approach is similar to the Danish series Borgen that fulfills its dual mandate of educating and entertaining by combining political and human drama.

The actors are well-known in South America, but not at all here. The Venezuelan Luis Geronimo Abreu plays the adult Bolivar with fierceness, intelligence, and self-confidence. But his scope is not limited and he gives us a defiant Bolivar who, despite his efforts, is succumbing to tuberculosis and heartbreak over the shattering of his political ideals, admitting on his deathbed that “America is ungovernable.” Three notable actresses are the Venezuelan Irene Esser, who plays Bolivar’s doomed young wife; the Ecuadorean Shany Nadan, who plays Bolivar’s long-time lover Manuelita Saenz; and the Colombian Andrea Gomez, who plays Marcela, the seamstress and teacher trying to escape her dishonourable past. The series has many drop-dead gorgeous actresses; unlike North American movies and television series, none of them are blonde.

Learning Spanish through Bolivar

My Spanish is not yet good enough that I could watch it in Spanish without subtitles. I tried Spanish subtitles but found that I was so occupied trying to read the fast-moving text that I was missing almost everything else. So I used the English subtitles, which you might consider cheating. However, this enabled me to listen more intently to the words and learn the Spanish equivalents of English words or expressions. In addition, I was taking an intermediate level Spanish grammar course at the same time as I was watching Bolivar, and I could hear the grammatical constructions more clearly as a result.

Thinking like an economist about opportunity cost leads to the question of whether I learned as much Spanish as if I had spent those 60 hours studying grammar. Probably not, but I had more fun. Muchas gracias, Libertador!

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