April 17, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Greg Barker
Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the world (Iraq, East Timor, Brazil, Cambodia, Indonesia and New York City), the dramatic film “Sergio” has a racially diverse cast (Latinos, white people and Asians) that tells the story of United Nations diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian who faced a life-or-death situation in 2003, when he was trapped in a bombed UN building in Baghdad.
Culture Clash: As a UN diplomat, de Mello dealt with many political and social conflicts, including the United States’ increasingly hostile relationship with Iraq after 9/11.
Culture Audience: “Sergio” will appeal mostly to people who like movies about international relations with a formulaic romantic storyline.
In 2010, HBO premiered the documentary “Sergio,” which was about Sergio Vieira de Mello, a United Nations diplomat from Brazil who was the victim of a deadly 2003 bombing in Baghdad, Iraq. Greg Barker directed the “Sergio” documentary (which was nominated for an Emmy), as well as this Netflix dramatic version of de Mello’s life events that led up to the bombing.
Craig Borten wrote the “Sergio” screenplay, which is adapted from Samantha Power’s book “Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World.” Several real-life facts were changed for the purpose of making the film more dramatic, so if viewers want a more accurate telling of the story, then the documentary is the better choice. But if you want a fairly suspenseful drama with a romance at the center of the film, then this scripted “Sergio” film will be more to your liking, even if the movie isn’t likely to get any awards recognition.
The “Sergio” dramatic film begins with charismatic and intelligent Sergio (played by Wagner Moura) rehearsing a speech that he’s about to give as a welcome to new staffers at the UN headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq. He’s a UN high commissioner for human rights, and he’s in Iraq for a four-month mission as an independent mediator between the U.S. and Iraq.
According to the movie, it was a mission that Sergio didn’t have to take, but he couldn’t say no the people who asked him to go to Baghad, including his close colleague Kofi Annan, who was Secretary-General of the United Nations at the time. In his short time in Baghdad, Sergio has even accomplished the difficult task of meeting with shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who resisted having meetings with many other leaders.
As he tries to prevent U.S. -Iraqi relations from deteriorating, Sergio’s goal is to work with the U.S. while gaining the trust of Iraqis to give them back full control of their sovereignty. This isn’t the news that U.S. Presidential Envoy Paul Breme (played by Bradley Whitford) wants to hear. Paul tells Sergio in a dismissive tone, “We have our own plans.” And later, Paul tells Sergio what the U.S. position will be about the next Iraqi elections: “I’ve decided there won’t be any elections until we’re ready.”
Unbeknownst to Paul, Sergio has compiled a dossier that includes disturbing reports that the U.S. military has committed several human-right violations while in Iraq. Sergio is about to go public with this information, by holding a press conference on August 19, 2003, when tragedy strikes: A bomb goes off at UN headquarters (housed in the Canal Hotel) in Baghdad, and the explosion completely destroys the building. Sergio and his deputy administrator Gil Loescher (played by Brían F. O’Byrne) get trapped in the rubble, and are pinned from the hips down.
The rest of the movie consists of going back and forth between the frantic rescue efforts and Sergio’s memory flashbacks to various points in his life as a diplomat. There are so many flashbacks in the movie, people who prefer stories to be told in chronological order will probably dislike the very non-linear structure of the film. Many of the flashbacks aren’t identified by the year, but observant viewers can tell how far back the flashbacks are by looking at the color of Sergio’s hair—the less gray the hair, the further the flashback.
A major part of the these flashbacks is showing how Sergio met and fell in love with UN economist Carolina Larriera (played by Ana de Armas) three years before the tragic bombing. In real life, Carolina (who is of Argentinian-Italian heritage) was part of the UN team in Baghdad at the time, and she desperately searched for Sergio after the explosion. That search is depicted in the movie to maximum dramatic effect. There are multiple scenes of guards preventing Carolina from entering the danger zone, and she gets more and more hysterical.
The movie portrays Sergio and Carolina’s romance as if it’s, well, straight out of a movie. He first notices her when they’re both stationed in East Timor, and they happen to regularly jog on the same path. They have a “meet cute” moment when Sergio is out jogging, he outruns his bodyguard Gaby (played by Clemens Schick), and he happens to see Carolina again. She starts up a conversation with Sergio, and they flirt a little. Carolina tells Sergio that she knows who he is, but she refuses to tell him her name when he asks.
The next time Sergio sees Carolina, it’s at a UN meeting, and she tells him her name. He says he already knows about her because he “did his homework.” Later, Carolina tells Sergio that she did her “homework” on him too, and she knows he’s married. However, based on the sparks between them and the way they look at each other, it’s only a matter of time before they get together. Their first kiss is a very “movie moment,” since it’s outside in the rain, as they fall into each other’s arms and kiss passionately while getting soaked by the rain.
When Sergio and Carolina met and began their love affair, he was legally married but estranged from his wife, who raised their two sons (who are in their late teens/early 20s when this story takes place) in Geneva while he traveled around the world for his job. A flashback to when the kids were underage shows that Sergio was such a workaholic who didn’t spend much time raising his children, that he didn’t even know that his younger son is allergic to shrimp. It’s an embarrassing ignorance that upsets his shrimp-allergic son when Sergio and his sons have a rare dinner together at the home of Sergio’s mother.
Other flashbacks include Sergio’s diplomatic work in helping East Timor gain independence from Portugal. He and his UN colleagues were appointed by Portugal as interim government officials. Instead of imposing restrictions that would alienate the East Timor rebels, Sergio went out of his way to welcome the participation of the natives fighting for independence, including rebel leader Xanana Gusmão. As Sergio says in the movie, “We were sent here as overlords, but I really hope we can leave as respected colleagues.” It was a controversial decision that some of Sergio’s UN colleagues, including Gil, did not approve of at first.
While in East Timor (in a scene that looks very fabricated for the movie), Sergio and Carolina meet local women who work at a yarn mill. Carolina introduces Sergio to a woman who’s had the tragedy of her sons and husband being killed. When Sergio asks her what she wants that will make her happy, she gives a poetic answer about wanting to have the ability to fly and fall from the sky like rain and remain in the place where she belongs. It’s a line that Sergio repeats when he’s at the presidential palace in Indonesia and he’s asked a similar question.
Another flashback is of Sergio, Gil and a female colleague being taken at gunpoint to Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s reign in the 1970s. It turns out Sergio and Ieng know each other from their days at the Sorbonne, so they get along just fine, and danger for the UN trio is averted. When Sergio and Gil reminisce about that experience several years later, Gil jokes, “I have a title for your autobiography: ‘War Criminals: My Friends.'”
Although Sergio is a well-respected diplomat, his workaholic ways have taken a toll on his marriage. Carolina, a sassy Harvard graduate who doesn’t want to be a trophy wife, confronts Sergio about making a commitment to her when Sergio tells Carolina that he wants every UN assignment of his to have a clear and defined plan. “I don’t like indefinite assignments,” says Sergio.
Carolina, who doesn’t want to be kept hanging in their relationship, essentially tells Sergio that she doesn’t want to be in a relationship with him unless he can also look at the relationship with a clear and defined plan. It’s a turning point when they realize that they want to be fully committed to each other.
There’s a lot to like about “Sergio,” especially for people who might not be familiar with the real people who inspired the movie. However, some of the scenes seem just a little too corny and contrived, especially those involving the Sergio/Carolina romance. Sergio’s unresolved marital status no doubt caused a lot of messiness and turmoil in real life, which is very much glossed over or ignored in the film. (It’s not mentioned in the movie, but Carolina’s claim that she was Sergio’s common-law wife led to a very protracted legal battle.)
Despite a hokey tone to the romance, Mauro and de Armas have convincing chemistry together, and they do a good job with the dialogue that they were given. In the film, Carolina says she’s doesn’t want to be an “appendage” to a powerful man, but she’s written in the movie as exactly that. If Carolina is supposed to be a brilliant economist, it’s not shown in the film, which mostly has her following Sergio’s lead or going into full-anxiety mode when she’s trying to find him in the post-bombing rubble. It’s really the same type of “worried wife or girlfriend” role that’s a cliché in movies that are set in war zones.
The film also took liberties with some facts (as many “inspired by a true story” movies do), by having Gil in the East Timor scenes. In real life, Gil was never in East Timor, as noted in the film’s epilogue. The epilogue also mentions that the way Gil was written in the movie (he’s portrayed as a very sarcastic skeptic) was as a composite of the real person and several members of Sergio’s A-Team.
The film’s editing has some notable moments, such as when the blast impact of the bombing on Sergio is juxtaposed with the blast of beach waves enjoyed by Sergio in his beloved Arpoador, an idyllic region of Brazil. However, the jumbled timeline in “Sergio” makes the film a lot sloppier than it needed to be. “Sergio” ultimately leaves the impression that it’s a trite portrayal of a richly layered and complicated life that is presented much better in the “Sergio” documentary.
Netflix premiered “Sergio” on April 17, 2020.