Sergio – ***½

Sergio (Greg Barker, 2020) – Full Original – Political Biopic

Reported Budget: $16 million (IMDB)

In this biopic, Sergio Vieira de Mello (Wagner Moura) leads the UN delegation to occupied Iraq in 2003. While preparing a report on human rights abuses there by the occupying American army, his base is attacked by Al-Qaeda. Lying trapped in the rubble underneath his former headquarters, the diplomat reflects on his life and career, focusing especially on his peace missions to East Timor and Cambodia as well as his relationship with Carolina (Ana de Armas), an economist with UN.

From afar, the machinations of international diplomacy seem like the most unlikely source of drama imaginable. The UN seems always to be spinning its wheels and accomplishing very little, so why make a movie about one of its chief diplomats? This is the challenge that Sergio confronts, trying to make us care about its title character, which the film presents as a driven and idealistic man, with flaws but who is fundamentally a good person trying to do the right thing.

Besides a visceral bombing sequence at the opening of the film, director Greg Barker and screenwriter Craig Borten do a pretty good job at making what could have been a very dry story dramatically interesting. The flashback structure works very well to keep the pace of the film steady and also to generate what are essentially several parallel storylines set in different parts of De Mello’s life. Each of these are compelling and suspenseful in their own right and each are well structured and come to their respective narrative climaxes about the same time, in so doing investing the resolution of the framing story (i.e. the attempt to rescue De Mello from the wreckage) with the accumulated dramatic weight of the various storylines.

As well as it works structurally, the film’s screenplay does nevertheless have quite a few flaws. The Carolina/Sergio romance in particular is told in highly clichéd and even cheesy ways. We have kisses in the pouring rain, grunty/sweaty sex scenes and an array of other familiar devices. The dialogue here is also a bit baffling at times, most notably during an exchange between the two that was intended to be flirty and sexy, but which also features the refrain “what else did your mother teach you?” which is about the least romantic thing I can imagine couples saying to one another.

But somehow, the romance ends up being the most memorable and affecting part of Sergio and the credit for this has to go to its two stars. Ana de Armas is just breaking out as a star following her bravura performance in Knives Out and her turn here should help build her reputation. Her star charisma, screen presence and acting ability elevate a fairly underwritten character into a brave and committed yet simultaneously glamorous and sexy heroine. I really can’t wait to see what she does next as she is clearly a star on the rise. (Given the state of the world right now, we won’t be seeing her in the latest Bond film for a while; instead, the next film from her may actually be a Netflix original entitled Blonde.)

Wagner Moura is also very good in this movie, but his work is made a bit easier by having a more developed and complex character to work with. Still, he is the consummate star here, as always throughout his career which has seen him play a wide range of characters. Of course Netflix viewers will know him as Pablo Escobar in Narcos and while that role brought him (justified) international fame and popularity, anyone who has seen his Brazilian films, especially the Elite Squad films, will not be surprised that he keeps showing such range and depth as an actor. If the film does successfully avoid the hagiographic hazards of the biopic genre, that is in large part down to the efforts that Moura made to make De Mello a credible human being and not just an idealized version of a national hero from Moura’s native Brazil.

Besides his role as star of the film, Moura also produced Sergio and was also front and center in Netflix’s promotional efforts for the film. These efforts, according to the publicity campaign, were part of Moura’s desire to create more positive, non-stereotypical images of Latin Americans. This film definitely provides such an image, but its creation and distribution by Netflix and Moura himself is nonetheless somewhat ironic given the very problematic representation the region has received in series like Narcos and the plethora of other fictions about drug cartels to be found on the service.

Besides this problem, it is also worth pointing out that Latin Americans are elevated in this film by virtue of two interrelated dimensions of their representation here, their A) whiteness in the cases of De Mello and Carolina and B) implicit superiority to the peoples in the various countries that De Mello visits and assists. Thus, despite featuring two progressive Latin American characters (and great actors from the region), the film still doesn’t quite shake off the dreaded “white savior” complex that is endemic in otherwise well-meaning films about international diplomacy.

These problematic elements and the flaws in the screenplay notwithstanding, Sergio has all the dramatic power and historical insight into recent geopolitical events to make for an entertaining and worthwhile biopic.

Netflix Tendencies

Netflix Stars

As discussed above, Wagner Moura also features in the Netflix series Narcos and also appeared in Narcos Mexico. Besides Sergio, he also appears in the forthcoming The Wasp Network, which was acquired by Netflix for a number of international territories, including the US.

Ana de Armas stars in the Netflix original movie Blonde, which is due to be released later in 2020. She also appears in The Wasp Network.

Garret Dillahunt will also appear in Blonde. He previously appeared in the Netflix original film Wheelman.

Celebrity Vanity Project

Again, as mentioned previously, besides starring in this film, Moura also produced it and is leading the publicity campaign for the film. Throughout that publicity, he has been very upfront about the personal dimensions of the project for him.

There is a good side to this in that he speaks a lot in interviews about wanting to represent Latin Americans in non-stereotypical ways, but at least one downside seems to be a weird fixation in the film on Moura’s svelte physique. We him shirtless for a long sequence when it wasn’t really necessary for him to be so and while he’s not in bad shape, neither is he some kind of Adonis. Rather than trying to show off his fitness, my theory is that he is trying to underscore the weight loss he undertook for the role, and is hoping to invite viewer comparison with his rotund appearance in Narcos, thus verifying his actorly dedication to the role. It also means that there is a golden opportunity here to make before and after quarantine memes using this film and Narcos.

Underrepresented Groups

Whatever ironies might be observed in Netflix’s broader exploitation of Latin American stereotypes, it is laudable that this film tries to offer such a portrayal. We need more positive images of Latin Americans and the film offers precisely that.

Difficult Themes

It is hard to imagine that a non-American UN diplomat that dealt with thorny geopolitical conflicts in East Timor, Cambodia and other small, perpetually war-torn countries would draw a great deal of commercial interest from other studios than Netflix.

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