Film “Sergio” (Vieira de Mello): first reviews decidedly mixed

January 31, 2020

This new film directed by Greg Barker [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2014/01/23/we-are-the-giant-film-about-the-arab-spring-here-is-the-trailer/] and based on his own award-winning documentary, confusingly also called Sergio, is a biographical drama about Sérgio Vieira de Mello, a diplomat from Brazil who worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for most of his life and was briefly High Commissioner for Human Rights. He was celebrated as a pre-eminent humanitarian before tragically dying in the Canal Hotel bombing in Iraq alongside many of his staff in 2003. The fiction film Sergio made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on 28 January 2020 before heading to Netflix.

Kayleigh Donaldson in Screenrant of 2 january 2020 wrotes perhaps a bit too breathlessly that the film Sergio is “one of the most anticipated Netflix original movies in 2020“.

Now the first two reviews are out and they indicate that it is foremost a romantic story that is well acted but diverts a lot from reality.

Jessica Kiang in Variety of 29 January 2020 is the more critical and – in my view – serious voice:

… handsome, heroic, charismatic de Mello (played with persuasive charm by Wagner Moura) certainly does seem like a man whose present was shaped by …the better, brighter, freer global future he believed the U.N. could be instrumental in achieving and that he personally could help midwife into being. Such noble intentions and such impact on world affairs does render understandable Barker’s rather starry-eyed approach, but [puts] unnecessary length and sentimental emphasis on the man’s romantic life…

..First, we spin forward to the 2003 bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, which was ordered by terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and which claimed at least 22 lives and wounded over 100 people, and here provides a loose framing device. De Mello and close associate Gil Loescher (Brian F. O’Byrne), both critically wounded, were trapped under tons of rubble in the blast, and … screenwriter Craig Borten imagines a borderline delirious de Mello reliving moments of significance from his storied life. Chief among these reminiscences is the tale of his romance with Carolina Larriera.. .an Argentinian U.N. economic adviser whom the married father-of-two met while brokering a peace deal between the rebels and the Indonesian government in East Timor.

In Adrian Teijido’s calm, throughful photography (it’s a refreshing choice to not go the shaky handheld docudrama route), de Armas and Moura make an attractive couple, and de Armas is able to imbue Carolina — whose role seems just a little wispy on the page — with an intelligence and will that makes her more than just de Mello’s romantic foil. But Barker’s emphasis on this love story at the expense of a deeper exploration of the exceptional talents that earned de Mello his reputation for feats of diplmatic wizardry in highly fraught situations where others had tried and failed, also has a curiously flattening effect.

Although the relationship with Larriera was doubtless crucially important to de Mello, it was not the thing that made him extraordinary in the eyes of the world. And so the hesitant courtship, the smouldering looks, and the romancing, including a tasteful but unnecessarily lengthy sex scene over which Fernando Velázquez’ otherwise rather generic political-thriller score crescendos like it’s high drama, all feel like a distraction from the more thorny and politically provocative side of de Mello’s story. That’s especially irksome given that the scenes of geopolitical debate, diplomatic argument and even ego clash between de Mello and the world-wearily witty Loescher … are actually where the film crackles to life.

…But this sentimental approach glosses over much of the potential drama that is set up only to dissipate: de Mello’s prickly relationship with U.S. Envoy Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford); his association, criticized by Loescher, with war criminals and terrorists if he believed it could achieve his ends; and his fateful decision to send the U.S. Army guards away from the U.N. office in Baghdad in 2003. Sergio Vieira de Mello was, by all accounts, not a man who let fear of making the wrong decision stop him from acting decisively, and it’s a shame that the soft-edged romantic prevarications of “Sergio” prevent the film from embodying that same dynamism.

Courtesy of Sundance
 John DeFore in Hollywood Reporter of 30 January 2020 sees a more than successful transition from documentary to a feature film:

… Rather, it’s one of those rare films .. in which a genuine concern for geopolitics coexists perfectly well with romance and old-fashioned moviegoing pleasures. This portrait of influential U.N. diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello benefits immensely from two magnetic leads, Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas, whose onscreen chemistry is undeniable; but its deft sense of structure is of equal importance, making it an engrossing picture even for those who know next to nothing about its subject or settings.

..Sergio and refugee expert Gil Loescher were trapped alive in the rubble; as a framing device, Sergio sets flashbacks to various points in his career during the hours when two American soldiers (Garret Dillahunt and Will Dalton) worked to extract the pinned men. These episodes help cement the diplomat’s reputation as an idealistic fix-it man for some of the world’s trickiest conflicts. …Sergio is out for a jog during his East Timor assignment when he passes another jogging foreigner, Carolina Larriera (de Armas). The attraction is immediate, but the film savors its development: …While the film plays up Sergio’s attractiveness to the younger woman (shirtless, the 50 year-old man probably bore little resemblance to Moura), it’s not blind to emotional flaws: He’s ignorant of key facts about his two sons’ lives, and he admits he’s most attentive to relationships and projects whose timeframe is finite.

Also on hand in East Timor is Loescher (Brian F. O’Byrne), who will be trapped by his side in Baghdad. The real Loescher, who had two legs amputated in his rescue from the site, was an independent expert who was only in Sergio’s Baghdad office (along with Arthur Helton – see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Helton) to interview him for a column on openDemocracy.net. In Sergio, Loescher is a composite, depicted as Vieira de Mello’s right-hand man for multiple U.N. missions — the conscience who argues against his boldest moves. As a storytelling device, this works quite well; but using Loescher’s real name is an unexpected choice for a documentarian, and confuses the truth for no reason. [my view: INDEED – see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/06/07/gil-loescher-life-long-defender-of-rights-of-refugees-honored/ and https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0479980/]

Those who know the history intimately may take issue with other condensations that play perfectly well to a layperson: Sergio’s interactions with U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford) are dramatically satisfying, and seem to capture the general nature of U.S./U.N. friction at the time; a question regarding the U.S. Army’s protection of Sergio’s office is probably also finessed for maximum thematic effect. The picture is most vulnerable to Hollywoodisms in scenes set after the bombing, as Carolina looks frantically for Sergio; the latter dreams of a sunny beach in his native Rio de Janeiro; and those soldiers heroically try to extract him despite having none of the necessary rescue equipment. But, coming late in the film as they do, these indulgences feel appropriate to the film’s lionization of its subject and investment in the couple’s relationship. Sergio believes in heroes and big ideals, and hopes we’re capable of the same belief…

Monica Castillo in NBC of 31 January 2020 adds an interview with the star Wagner Moura who “was so intrigued by Vieira de Mello’s story that he signed on as a producer for the movie. In the interview with NBC News, Moura said that this is the first of many stories he’d like to share to address the lack of Latinos on the screen. In the interview he also says “this guy is kind of a personal hero for me, and I’ve been working with the U.N. for a while; I’m a goodwill ambassador for the ILO [International Labour Organization] and the fight against slave labor..[Sergio] was a man who dedicated his life to human rights. When he was killed, he was the high commissioner for human rights; when he started in the U.N., he was the high commissioner for refugees“. Well he was NOT, he worked for the UNHCR.

——
https://variety.com/2020/film/uncategorized/sergio-review-1203473960/
https://screenrant.com/netflix-original-movies-anticipated-2020/
https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/sergio-1274882
https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/sergio-narcos-star-wagner-moura-plays-latino-who-doesn-t-n1127341

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: