Current Issue #488

Film Review:

Perennially political director Greg Barker’s dramatisation of chunks of the life of UN diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello has its problems but is grounded by a tremendous performance from Wagner Moura (yes, an actual Brazilian).

Barker has already handled a 2009 de Mello doco (under the same title and on Netflix as well), but this is the inevitable biopic of the guy, and it’s an American production that’s highly critical of America.

Craig Borten’s screenplay (drawn partially from Samantha Power’s book Chasing The Flame: One Man’s Fight To Save The World) is presented in the expected non-chronological fashion but perhaps for a very good reason, as Moura’s de Mello spends a lot of time trapped under rubble after the 2003 Cabal Hotel bombing in Iraq. It seems that, just maybe, the ping-ponging about of the narrative is because he is essentially watching his life, as they say, flash before his eyes, and much of the action is infused with dread, whether you know if he survived or not. But don’t Google it!

We see de Mello’s arrival in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and he’s there to supposedly assist the Iraqi people with achieving their “freedom” and the withdrawal of US troops. His colleagues include grim Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford as George W. Bush’s special envoy), the nice if ill-fated Gil Loescher (Brian F. O’Byrne) and economist Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas), with whom de Mello, estranged from his wife, is engaged in a long-term relationship (which, as the credits note, was later ratified as a civil union by Brazil’s courts).

Much is made of how de Mello and Larriera fell in love, and there are semi-clichéd moments including their first kiss in the rain – but, again, what else would a possibly dying man choose to remember? There are also many factual depictions of his idealism and romanticism, and how such noble sentiments clash with the more simplistic, violent tendencies of the US. We see him trying to forgive his captors after he was kidnapped while previously working in East Timor, and listening to individual tales of despair told by real Iraqis. You know: the people he was actually meant to be there helping.

However, director Barker’s multilingual epic doesn’t quite canonise Sérgio either: he’s shown to be stricken by doubt, alienated from his grown-up children and, importantly, angry at the very country he’s meant to be representing. And it’s that strain of anti-Americanism that has led this to be both loved and loathed out there, with Larriera herself going on record to remind anyone who will listen that the bombing was never properly investigated and, just maybe, was more than a little suspicious.

But what do you expect? This is America we’re talking about, after all.

This article has been updated

Reviewer Rating

Sergio (M) is now streaming on Netflix

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox