Netflix’s new release “Sergio” isn’t the first time director Greg Barker has approached the life of esteemed Brazilian United Nations diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello. Barker’s 2009 documentary about Vieira de Mello was critically lauded, and even shortlisted for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
“Sergio” from 2009 focuses on the humanitarian achievements and charismatic leadership of its subject, all while highlighting the complicated ongoing geopolitics that surrounded Vieira de Mello’s life and death. “Sergio” from 2020 attempts to highlight Vieira de Mello’s accomplishments to the same degree. While it achieves this goal in large part because of Wagner Moura’s strong central performance, it follows traditional dramatic storytelling beats too frequently to be a fully effective portrait of the diplomat.
“Sergio” aims to portray Vieira de Mello’s life in a reverent, contemplative manner. From the perspective of Vieira de Mello (Wagner Moura) moments before his tragic death in the 2003 bombing of the Canal Hotel U.N. base in Iraq, the film sees the diplomat reflecting back on his life’s achievements and regrets as he waits for assistance from a rescue team. Although told in a nonlinear format, the film follows several of Vieira de Mello’s diplomatic endeavors as separate chapters in his life, from his work as the U.N. transitional administrator in East Timor to his appointment in Iraq as a U.N. special representative.
The bulk of the film, however, focuses on Vieira de Mello’s personal relationships. While the film touches on his developing friendships with other colleagues and his regret over not connecting more with his children, the majority of “Sergio” centers around his romantic relationship with Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas), a young U.N. official he meets when stationed in East Timor. The relationship between Larriera and Vieira de Mello ultimately becomes the dramatic focus of the film, especially in the second half, which focuses on the pair’s conflicted feelings about beginning a relationship while working on their humanitarian efforts.
While the romance serves as a compelling dramatic arc of the film, it feels contrived; the screenplay seems to prioritize a complex romantic storyline over its portrayal of historical events, so much so that its politics become greatly oversimplified. Screenwriter Craig Borten uses the tense relationship between Vieira de Mello and U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford, in a glaringly underwhelming performance) to make subtle remarks against American imperialism and the conflicted dynamic between the United States and the U.N. But these messages are quickly left behind to prioritize the film’s romantic plot.
Thankfully, both Moura and de Armas are incredibly convincing in conveying the depth of the relationship between Vieira de Mello and Larriera. De Armas imbues her performance with plenty of charm and maturity, but one can’t help but think that a better version of the film would have focused less on her role as Vieira de Mello’s love interest and more on her role as his collaborator. As the central figure of the film, Moura is exceptional, capturing Vieira de Mello’s charisma, experience and thoughtfulness in each and every scene. His performance carries an incredible level of depth and authenticity, conveying both the personal and professional life of his character. Unfortunately, Moura’s performance is overshadowed and muddled by a weak script, which fails to make the most of the actor’s potential.
While “Sergio” aims to celebrate its central figure, it sacrifices his story to underwritten politics and a traditional cinematic romance. Save for a captivating, emotionally rich performance from Moura, “Sergio” is a largely forgettable film about an individual whose story brought so much more to the table.