'Sergio': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
A more than successful transition from docs to features.

'Narcos' star Wagner Moura plays the good guy in Greg Barker's portrait of revered U.N. diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello.

"Profile of a U.N. official working in Iraq and East Timor" may not be the sexiest logline you'll read this month (or today); ditto for "feature-film debut of a director known for documentaries about politics, the War on Terror, and Muslim children." But Greg Barker's Sergio, adapting Barker's 2009 doc of the same name, is no homework movie. Rather, it's one of those rare films (The Year of Living Dangerously and The Quiet American come to mind) in which a genuine concern for geopolitics coexists perfectly well with romance and old-fashioned moviegoing pleasures. This portrait of influential U.N. diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello benefits immensely from two magnetic leads, Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas, whose onscreen chemistry is undeniable; but its deft sense of structure is of equal importance, making it an engrossing picture even for those who know next to nothing about its subject or settings.

It would be hard to know nothing about the latest point in the film's chronology: the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the United Nations was forced into an uneasy position. Vieira de Mello (referred to throughout the film by his first name) insisted that his mission was to facilitate new elections and the quick return to Iraqi sovereignty, not to enable a long American occupation. Early in what he hoped would be a four-month assignment, his Baghdad headquarters was attacked by a suicide bomber. Sergio and refugee expert Gil Loescher were trapped alive in the rubble; as a framing device, Sergio sets flashbacks to various points in his career during the hours when two American soldiers (Garret Dillahunt and Will Dalton) worked to extract the pinned men.

These episodes help cement the diplomat's reputation as an idealistic fix-it man for some of the world's trickiest conflicts. We spend the most time in East Timor, where he helped broker peace between Indonesia, which had occupied the region for decades, and militant factions fighting for independence. (Craig Borten's screenplay rather dramatically boils this negotiation down to a few sentences in the palace of the Indonesian president, as Sergio wisely insists that the way the world views Indonesia will depend on how Indonesia treats the Timorese.)

Sergio is out for a jog during his East Timor assignment when he passes another jogging foreigner, Carolina Larriera (de Armas). The attraction is immediate, but the film savors its development: She is a U.N. staffer as well, engaged in her own efforts to support locals; she opens up to him as his initial attempts to connect with independence fighters are rebuffed. While the film plays up Sergio's attractiveness to the younger woman (shirtless, the 50 year-old man probably bore little resemblance to Moura), it's not blind to emotional flaws: He's ignorant of key facts about his two sons' lives, and he admits he's most attentive to relationships and projects whose timeframe is finite.

Also on hand in East Timor is Loescher (Brian F. O’Byrne), who will be trapped by his side in Baghdad. The real Loescher, who had two legs amputated in his rescue from the site, was an independent expert who was only in Sergio's Baghdad office (along with his writing partner Arthur Helton) to interview him for a column on openDemocracy.net. In Sergio, Loescher is a composite, depicted as Vieira de Mello's right-hand man for multiple U.N. missions — the conscience who argues against his boldest moves. As a storytelling device, this works quite well; but using Loescher's real name is an unexpected choice for a documentarian, and confuses the truth for no reason.

Those who know the history intimately may take issue with other condensations that play perfectly well to a layperson: Sergio's interactions with U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford) are dramatically satisfying, and seem to capture the general nature of U.S./U.N. friction at the time; a question regarding the U.S. Army's protection of Sergio's office is probably also finessed for maximum thematic effect. The picture is most vulnerable to Hollywoodisms in scenes set after the bombing, as Carolina looks frantically for Sergio; the latter dreams of a sunny beach in his native Rio de Janeiro; and those soldiers heroically try to extract him despite having none of the necessary rescue equipment. But, coming late in the film as they do, these indulgences feel appropriate to the film's lionization of its subject and investment in the couple's relationship. Sergio believes in heroes and big ideals, and hopes we're capable of the same belief.

Production companies: Black Rabbit Media, Anima Pictures, Itapoan
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Wagner Moura, Ana de Armas, Garret Dillahunt, Clemens Schick, Will Dalton, Bradley Whitford, Brian F. O’Byrne
Director: Greg Barker
Screenwriter: Craig Borten
Producers: Brent Travers, Daniel Dreifuss, Wagner Moura
Director of photography: Adrian Teijido
Production designer: Johnny Breedt
Costume designer: Jo Katsaras
Editor: Claudia Castello
Composer: Fernando Velazquez
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Casting director: Carla Hool

Rated R, 118 minutes