Sergio (2 stars)


Glossy, fawning biopic of UN diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello, starring Wagner Moura

Eleven years ago, filmmaker Greg Barker made an Emmy-nominated documentary about UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Sérgio Vieira de Mello, who was caught up in the 2003 Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad. Barker returns to the subject and title for his debut narrative feature, an attractive but insubstantial and sometimes offputtingly fawning account of Vieira de Mello's work, scripted by Oscar-nominated Craig Borten, of Dallas Buyers Club fame.

Brazilian actor Wagner Moura (Elite Squad, Narcos) plays his countryman as a square-jawed and staunch humanitarian – a dapper, grey-flecked gent with Clooney-like swagger and aggressively earnest intentions, who is seen as a future candidate for UN Secretary General. Although backed by the Americans, he sees his role in US-controlled Iraq as supporting the populace in reclaiming their sovereignty.

In its portrayal of the importance of diplomacy amid the fallout of war, Sergio is a potentially interesting, lesser-seen perspective on the aftermath of invasion. Vieira de Mello tangles with the slippery and hubristic Paul Bremer (a well-cast but underused Bradley Whitford), the Chief US Administrator in Iraq, but it's a crudely drawn picture of ideological conflict. If it paints the US administration unfavourably, it balances this with showing the ordinary bravery of all-American men – like Garret Dillahunt as a soldier who comes to Vieira de Mello's aid following the bombing. Knives Out's Ana de Armas appears in the crucial role of Sérgio's real-life partner Carolina Larriera, a fellow diplomat and economics specialist.

It's a glossy, luxuriously shot skew on weighty subject matter that, given Barker's non-fiction background (which also includes Obama documentary The Final Year and various conflict and terrorism-related fare) feels surprisingly removed from reality. The heavy focus on what is rendered a rather inane love story is its biggest misstep. Despite her considerable screen-time and the character's own expertise, De Armas merely simpers in support, existing to gaze at Sérgio adoringly and bolster our perception of his greatness.

The fidgety structure gives an appropriate sense of a heroic man on a global mission but, as the film flits impatiently back and forth between what would have been ridiculously complex discussions in East Timor and Iraq (but are never portrayed as such) and gets endlessly side-tracked by the romance, it's impossible to truly care about anything. Vieira de Mello's achievements remain incredible and Sergio pertinently illustrates the price you pay for putting yourself on the frontline. At best, it's a simple, lovestruck picture of the courageous nature of political negotiations that some will find enjoyably unmuddied.

Available to watch on Netflix now.