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Sergio (2020) | Review

The Last Thing He Wanted: Barker Resurrects Martyred Diplomat in Feature Debut

Greg Barker Sergio Movie ReviewDocumentarian Greg Barker returns to the subject of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Sergio Vieira de Mello for his narrative debut Sergio, retaining the same name of his 2009 documentary about the political figure who was killed in the 2003 bombing of the U.N. Headquarters in Baghdad upon the orders of Abu Masab al-Zarqawi.

Said bombing provides the bookends for Barker’s latest examination of de Mello, whose accomplishments pepper what’s basically an elongated montage of his budding romance with Carolina Larriera via flashback as he lies in the rubble.

Penned by Craig Borten (The Dallas Buyers Club; The 33), Barker’s film drives away from the bio-pic nature of the documentary for what stands as a politically charged love story whose passionate union is torn asunder by terrorism. Although it serves as a highlight of some of de Mello’s more noted accomplishments during his tenure, the enigmatic figure gets somewhat lost in the boilerplate semantics of Borten’s screenplay.

As Sergio Vieira de Mello (Wagner Moura) lies critically wounded beneath the rubble of the bombed-out U.N. Headquarters of Baghdad in August of 2003 alongside his colleague Gil Loescher (Brian F. O’Byrne), with American soldiers (Garret Dillahunt, Will Dalton) trying to extract them, we backtrack to happier, but no less tenuous times in the diplomat’s life. His romance with Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas), an Argentinean U.N. economic advisor who he met in East Timor while trying to broker peace between the rebels and the Indonesian government, follows him to Baghdad, a stint meant to last only four months. As we learn of their future desires to settle down (with grand plans to end up together in Rio de Janeiro) and de Mello’s estranged relationship with his two sons from a previous relationship, nothing seems to temper his allegiance to his position.

One of the higher profile victims of the Bush-Cheney years, de Mello’s accomplishments are merely routine lip service here, with snippets of his time in Cambodia and East Timor both requiring a bit more research on the part of the audience to orient themselves in what was actually transpiring or at stake. Brian F. O’Byrne as Gil Loescher is meant as a composite for several associates, and feels like cipher in his interactions. Likewise, Bradley Whitford as American Envoy Paul Bremer, who pops up to ask things like “How the hell did Sergio make that happen?” The retort – “He just went and did it” therein in belies the spirt of Borten’s script.

In East Timur, we learn Sergio is known as ‘the world’s Mr. Fix-It,” but these handful of instances don’t really convey his stature or importance despite a vibrant and viably persuasive performance from Wagner Moura (who is no stranger to playing a commanding presence, from Jose Padilha’s Elite Squad films to his performance as Pablo Escobar in “Narcos”). Moura reunites with his Wasp Network (2019) co-star Ana de Armas, and superficially they’re quite a handsome couple. However, as written, Larriera isn’t given much to do—a make-out sequence in the rain recalls a similar instance in Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), where journalist Mel Gibson woos attaché Sigourney Weaver—only that couple had a hypnotic montage set to Maurice Jarre’s score.

Composer Fernando Velazquez (A Monster Calls, 2016) finds no such haunting or aching foothold here (of note, Brad Anderson used Weir’s film as a template for 2018’s Beirut, a similar exercise in agencies and diplomats caught in the tenuous crossfires of ill-fated negotiations). Unfortunately, little can be gleaned about the man or his accomplishments in this 2020 version of Sergio.

★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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