Manuela Sáenz (2001)

“If you wonder about Bolívar, it’s enough for you to know that I loved him when he was alive, and now that he’s dead, I praise him.”

Set in the 19th century, Manuela Sáenz from director Diego Rísquez is the story of the lover of Simon Bolívar, the Venezuelan revolutionary who fought against Spanish rule and united a number of South American countries into La Gran Columbia. Manuela Sáenz played a significant role in Bolívar’s life but seems largely lost to history. This film is the perfect companion film for the Columbian political satire, Bolívar is Me.

Manuela Sáenz begins in the year 1856 with the arrival of a whaling ship in Paitu, Peru. On the ship is the young Herman Melville (Erich Wildpret) who’s heard that Manuela Sáenz lived there at one time. He’s astonished to learn that she is still alive, and he seeks her out. Now partially paralyzed, she lives with her two faithful servants and a number of dogs named after Bolívar’s enemies in a primitive hut which overlooks the ocean. Impoverished, she’s managed to survive by translating and also selling tobacco. Melville meets and talks briefly to Manuela (Beatriz Valdés), but he only seems to stir unhappy memories (this actually happened btw). She asks him “Why do you want to meet this ruin of history?” He replies: “Well, I’ve always been interested in legends and you are one of them.” Meanwhile diphtheria arrives in Paitu and the death toll begins to climb….

The film is told with flashbacks and the ‘present’ is filmed in sepia while the past is in colour. Through the flashbacks we see a few glimpses of Manuela’s early life. She was a bastard child, the product of an Ecuadorian woman and a Spanish officer and grew up in a convent–although those 2 latter details are not made clear. Later her family arranged marriage with a British merchant, Dr. Thorne, but her life changed drastically when she met Simon Bolívar and they quickly became lovers. Scenes show how she left her outraged husband, and she was later made a Colonel in Bolívar’s forces. Other scenes depict how some officers were appalled by her behaviour and resented her presence while others embraced her commitment.

This is primarily the tale of the love story between Manuela and Bolívar, and the emphasis is on their relationship rather than the events that took place, so when revolts and battles occur, there’s little detail which really is a pity. The film doesn’t emphasise that in sympathy with the revolution against Spain, she’d already left her husband in 1822 before she met Bolívar. The sexual passion between Manuela and Bolívar is evident, and when circumstances force them to be apart, their correspondence keeps the relationship alive. Manuela’s greatest treasure is a box full of his letters.

When Bolívar is finally overthrown and sent into exile, Manuela remains behind, but her presence is a dangerous reminder of Bolívar. Bolívar’s enemies considered her capable of starting a counter-revolution, so she too is sent into exile. Scenes show a long arduous trek with her loyal supporters (former slaves) before she finally settles in Paitu where she  remains until Melville’s ship sails in.  

The film quality is spotty; some scenes appear more faded than others. One of the scenes depicting the burning of a body is a little over done, but apart from that, this is an interesting film in spite of the fact that it left this viewer dissatisfied with the patchy history of Manuela. While her passion for Bolívar is evident, her defiance of social laws, which includes leaving her husband and dressing in men’s clothing, hints at a fascinating woman. Other scenes however leave a lot unexplained. She holds a mock execution, for example, which angers Bolívar and he ultimately bans her from his presence–not a permanent ban, I should add.

Manuela Sáenz, a Venezuelan film, is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s foreign film festival.

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