Review: ‘Akelli,’ starring Nushrratt Bharuccha, Amir Boutrous, Rajesh Jais and Tsahi Halevi

August 31, 2023

by Carla Hay

Nushrratt Bharuccha in “Akelli” (Photo courtesy of Reliance Entertainment/Zee Studios)


Directed by Pranay Meshram

Hindi and Arabic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Iraq and in India in 2014, the action film “Akelli” has an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An Indian woman is kidnapped by ISIS terrorists in Iraq and must fight to survive.

Culture Audience: “Akelli” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and tacky “women in peril” movies.

Tsahi Halevi in “Akelli” (Photo courtesy of Reliance Entertainment/Zee Studios)

“Akelli” is such a relentlessly moronic film, it almost seems like a parody of bad movies, except this awful action flick takes itself way too seriously. The airplane scene toward the end is one of the worst. “Akelli” is just a pile-on of bad dialogue and one unrealistic scenario after another.

Directed by Pranay Meshram, “Akelli” was written by Meshram, Gunjan Saxena and Ayush Tiwari. The movie takes place in 2014 and begins by showing garment factory worker Jyoti Arora (played by Nushrratt Bharuccha), who is a native of India, with other women from the factory being herded like cattle in Mosul, Iraq. The women are being kidnapped by ISIS terrorists, who want to abuse the women and force them to take part in terrorist activities.

How did Jyoti end up in this awful situation? “Akelli” (which means “alone” in Hindi) has flashbacks to show the events that led up to this kidnapping. Six months before the kidnapping, Jyoti (a bachelorette with no children) living in Punjab India, and working an airport employee whose job was to direct planes on the tarmac. However, Jyoti gets fired when she interferes in a fight between an elderly co-worker named Devendra Suri (played by Nand Chopra) and an aggressive passenger.

Jyoti goes to an employment agency and asks supervisor Ranjit Chawla (played by Rajesh Jais) for help in finding a job. Ranjit tells her about a “temporary” job working in a garment factory for one month. The pay is ₹80,000 for the month, which would be about $1,296 in U.S. dollars in 2014. The catch is that the job is in Mosul, Iraq.

Ranjit says the employer will pay for all the travel expenses. Jyoti is desperate for money, so she accepts this job offer. Jyoti’s mother thinks it’s a bad idea. Jyoti’s young niece Mahi (played by Mannat Duggal) also doesn’t want Jyoti to go, because it would mean that Jyoti would miss Mahi’s birthday.

Jyoti goes to Iraq and finds out that the garment factory job is a “sweatshop” situation with long hours. The workers who have arrived from India have their passports confiscated by factory supervisor Noor Bano (played by Shivani Sopori), who turns out to be a hellish boss. Shortly after arriving in Iraq, there’s word that the Oman capital of Muscat will soon be invaded, and all Indian citizens must evacuate territories where there is active ISIS terrorism.

Jyoti hears from employment agency supervisor Ranjit that a plane ticket has been sent for her to go back to India. She asks Noor about it, but Noor says she hasn’t heard anything about a plane ticket for Jyoti. (Noor is lying, or course.) With no money and with her passport confiscated, Jyoti is stuck in Iran. And then the kidnapping happens.

The rest of “Akelli” shows many melodramatic and increasingly silly ways that Jyoti fights to survive. There’s also some sexual violence depicted in the film. Jyoti is told that she has to be the “wife” of a terrorist soldier named Afra (played by Munisa Halmanova), who rapes her. Afra’s cruel ISIS commander is Wahab (played by Amir Boutrous), who has an even more ruthless ISIS commander named Assad (played by Tsahi Halevi), who notices that Jyoti is more courageous than the average kidnapping victim.

“Akelli” is almost offensive to real-life kidnapping victims in how it presents this survival story, especially a scene near the end when Akelli takes a big risk on a plane that would surely get her killed in real life. The acting performances in the movie aren’t very good. There’s also a lot of manufactured suspense, while many of the fight scenes look too phony. “Akelli” seems to have no self-awareness of how horrible it is. This lack of self-awareness makes a bad movie look worse.

Reliance Entertainment/Zee Studios released “Akelli” in U.S. cinemas and in India on August 25, 2023.

Review: ‘A Journal for Jordan,’ starring Michael B. Jordan and Chanté Adams

December 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Chanté Adams and Michael B. Jordan in “A Journal for Jordan” (Photo by David Lee/Columbia Pictures)

“A Journal for Jordan”

Directed by Denzel Washington

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1998 to 2018, in New York City; Akron, Ohio; Washington, D.C.; and Iraq, the dramatic film “A Journal for Jordan” has a racially diverse cast of characters (African American and white people, with a few Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Based on true events, a single mother to a 12-year-old son tells the story of her relationship with her son’s deceased father, who was a U.S. Army sergeant killed in the line of duty in Iraq.

Culture Audience: “A Journal for Jordan” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Michael B. Jordan, director Denzel Washington (who does not appear in the movie) and emotion-driven stories about love and loss.

Chanté Adams and Michael B. Jordan in “A Journal for Jordan” (Photo by David Lee/Columbia Pictures)

“A Journal for Jordan” pulls at audience heartstrings in all the right ways by telling this romantic and bittersweet story that ultimately celebrates life and what we make of it. Directed by Denzel Washington and written by Virgil Williams, the dramatic film “A Journal for Jordan” is based on journalist/book publisher Dana Canedy’s 2008 memoir of the same name. The book not only told Canedy’s story but also the story of her fiancé Charles Monroe King, a U.S. Army sergeant who was killed in the line of duty in Iraq in 2006, less than two months before he had been scheduled to return to the United States. The book included King’s journal entries that he wrote to his and Canedy’s son Jordan, who was a baby when King died.

“A Journal for Jordan,” which is Washington’s fourth feature film as a director, is his most sentimental and heartwearming movie that he’s helmed so far. It’s also the first movie that Oscar-winning actor Washington has directed where he is not in the movie as an actor. Although the movie’s title might give the impression that Jordan (played by Jalon Christian) is the focus of the story, he is not.

The story (which jumps around in the timeline) is centered on Jordan’s parents Dana (played by Chanté Adams) and Charles (played by Michael B. Jordan) and what happened during their eight-year romance. The other parts of the movie show Dana’s life as a single mother raising Jordan. Washington and Jordan are two of the producers of “A Journal for Jordan.”

A movie like this could be overly sappy, but director Washington shows admirable restraint in letting the story unfold tenderly—mostly in flashbacks that have the tone of fond memories through the lens of longing for someone who has passed away. Even the film’s musical score (by Marcelo Zarvos) is understated. There are no bombastic, violin-heavy orchestrations to manipulate people’s emotions, as is often the case with movies about tragic love stories.

“A Journal for Jordan” opens with a fever-dream type of montage that’s a collage of memories of Charles and Dana as lovers, as well as scenes of the Iraq combat zone where Charles tragically lost his life. If people see this movie without knowing what the story is about beforehand, it’s clear in the first five minutes that someone has died. The movie doesn’t take long to tell audiences who it is.

The movie’s first scene of dialogue takes place in New York City in 2007. Dana is a senior editor at The New York Times, where she’s an intelligent, hard-working and ambitious employee who does investigative news work. She’s just landed an interview with an important source for a story she’s been working on of her own initiative.

When she tells her boss (played by Stephen Sherman) that she got this crucial interview, she’s dismayed to find out that he’s assigned a co-worker named Rosenblum (played by Spencer Squire) to work with her on the story, based on Rosenblum saying (but not proving) that he could have valuable information to add. Dana isn’t happy about someone being added to a story that she worked hard on from the beginning. And she says so to her boss, who basically cuts her off and ignores her concerns, as he walks side-by-side with Rosenblum in front of her.

When the boss turns around to talk to Dana, he has a look of slight disgust on his face as he indicates to Dana that she should look at her blouse. Dana looks down at her blouse and is embarrassed to see there’s a stain from leakage of breast milk. It’s a moment that nursing mothers can dread because they know that there are sexist bosses and co-workers who think that pregnancy and childbirth make women less competent employees.

Viewers who’ve worked in newsrooms will also notice how realistic this scene is in showing the subtle but still noticeable ways in which people who aren’t white men are often treated with less respect in work environments that give white men the biggest leadership positions and the highest salaries. The scene also shows that Dana is the type of person who’s not afraid to speak up for herself, even if she doesn’t get the results that she deserves. In other words, Dana is no pushover.

As a frustrated Dana goes back to her office, she gripes to a middle-aged co-worker named Miriam (played by Susan Pourfar), who is Jordan’s godmother, about Rosenblum being dropped in on her assignment, probably because she knows that Rosenblum will get credit for a lot of the work that Dana did. Miriam is sympathetic, but she seems worried about how Dana is living. “Don’t isolate yourself,” Miriam tells Dana.

Miriam thinks Dana’s life should be about more than just going to work and going home. Dana reminds Miriam that she’s a single mother of a baby and doesn’t have time for much of a personal life. At home, Dana seems lonely and somewhat overwhelmed—not about taking care of the baby but by grief over the loss of Jordan’s father.

And sure enough, Charles appears to her in a dream, as a somewhat shadowy figure where he says, “Tell him everything, Ma.” (Ma was his nickname for Dana after she became a mother.) And the next thing you know, Dana is on her computer, typing out her memories of Charles for Jordan to read when he gets old enough to understand.

During her writing, Dana also includes quotes that Charles wrote in his “A Father’s Legacy” journal. Some of the quotes include: “Dear Jordan, I want you to know that it’s okay for boys to cry” because “crying can release a lot of pain and stress. It has nothing to do with your manhood.” This trip down memory lane triggers the flashbacks that are shown in the movie.

The majority of the movie then shows the ups and downs of the relationship between Charles and Dana, beginning when they met in 1998. Charles was a first sergeant in the U.S. Army stationed in Ohio. At this point in his life, Charles has been in the Army for 11 years. He grew close to Dana’s retired parents (played by Robert Wisdom and Tamara Tunie), who live in Akron, Ohio. Charles’ parents aren’t seen in the movie, but soon after he meets Dana, he tells Dana that he loves his parents, but he couldn’t get through certain things in life without the family-like support of Dana’s parents.

Dana’s parents treat Charles almost like a son. How this surrogate family relationship developed is not shown in the movie, which is told from Dana’s perspective. Dana’s strict father used to be a drill sergeant in the U.S. Army. Charles met Dana’s father through some kind of Army connection. After Dana meets Charles, she finds out that he’s so close to her father, that Charles calls him Pop. Charles tells Dana it’s because her parents have helped him with a lot of emotional support. She replies sarcastically, “You didn’t grow up with them.”

Dana tries to avoid visiting her parents as much as possible. It’s not that she doesn’t love them, but seeing her parents brings back painful memories of her childhood and reminds her of the type of life that she doesn’t want to have. It’s revealed in bits in pieces of conversations in the movie that Dana thinks that her parents have an unhappy marriage and that it’s her father’s fault because he has a long history of infidelity. Dana saw firsthand how this infidelity made her mother miserable but afraid to end the marriage. It’s why Dana has major issues with trust and commitment when it comes to romantic relationships.

In the spring of 1998, Dana goes back home to visit her family, which also includes her younger bachelorette sister Gwen and her younger married brother Mike. As an indication of how much distance she wants to keep from her parents, Dana stays in a hotel instead of her parents’ house during this visit. During a sibling conversation in their parents’ backyard (where Gwen calls Dana a “Type A” personality), Dana makes no apologies for her big-city, single life. “Men are luxuries, not necessities,” Dana comments.

Dana meets Charles when she stops by his place at the recommendation of her father, who clearly wants to play matchmaker. Charles is an illustrator artist in his spare time. (He likes to do portraits of people.) Dana admires his work and asks him who his favorite artists are. He says Claude Monet and Georges Seurat.

Dana, who considers herself to be a sophisticated intellectual, is immediately impressed. Charles also says that his life goal is to retire from the Army when he reaches the title of sergeant major, and then he wants to devote his time to painting art. After finding out about his love of art, Dana gives Charles an obvious chance to visit her in New York. She tells Charles that maybe he’d like to see a real Monet painting up close at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There’s an immediate attraction between Dana and Charles, but she plays it cool overall, at first. Because Charles knows that Dana is staying at a hotel, Charles asks Dana if he can drive her to the Canedy family barbecue happening the next day. She agrees and is a little taken aback when he suggests that he pick her up at 9 a.m., which is hours before the barbecue starts.

Dana says yes, but she oversleeps and isn’t ready when Charles arrives to pick her up at scheduled 9 a.m. time. She’s very apologetic, he’s very understanding, and they head to a local diner to have breakfast. It all sounds like the beginnings of an ideal romance. But there are a few obstacles, as there are always seems to be in real-life love stories that are made into movies.

For starters, Charles tells Dana that he’s in the middle of a divorce. His estranged wife, who lives in Texas, has custody of their daughter Christina. (Christina is never seen in the movie.) Charles tells Dana that his marriage fell apart because he and his soon-to-be-ex-wife were too young when they got married, but he says that he loves being a father. Dana is accepting of this information, but she’s thinking at this point that Charles isn’t likely to become her boyfriend because they would have to do long-distance dating.

Things go well at the barbecue. Charles is polite, respectful and attentive to Dana. And, of course, family members happily notice that Dana seems to like Charles as much as he seems to like her. However, the realities of Charles’ divorce and single parenthood come crashing in on Charles and Dana’s first date when he leaves the barbecue early because he says he has a phone date to talk with Christina.

Another slight bump in the road comes when it takes nearly two months for Charles to call Dana again after their first date together. She’s slightly annoyed that it took him this long, but he explains that he waited until his divorce was made final. Dana likes Charles enough to give him a chance to get to know her better.

Dana and Charles end up dating, of course, and their romance kicks into high gear when he visits her many times in New York. On the first visit, she invites him to stay with her at her apartment. First, she says he can sleep on the couch. Then, she changes her mind and says he can sleep in the same bed with her.

Their courtship is sweet and passionate. Charles is not as sophisticated as Dana initially thought he was, but she doesn’t mind. For example, when he first visits her in New York, they go to an Italian restaurant for a dinner date. It’s there that Dana finds out that Charles doesn’t know what olive oil is because he asks her what it is when it’s put on the table. Dana also has to educate Charles on the differences between shows that are Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway.

In addition, Dana thinks Charles could have a better sense of fashion. She notices that he likes to wear jeans and scruffy-looking athletic shoes. No problem. She buys him a designer suit as her first Christmas gift to him. He’s a little uncomfortable with wearing suits, but he knows that if he’s going to be in Dana’s life and the types of social events that she goes to, there’ll come a time when he’ll have to wear a fancy suit. And so, Charles accepts the gift when Dana goes with him in the store to see if the suit fits.

Charles also likes to tell corny jokes. Dana doesn’t mind that either. She thinks it’s actually a little endearing. For example, one of his running jokes is saying, “Guess what?” And then following it up by saying, “Chicken butt.” These are some of the little jokes that couples have that make Charles and Dana’s romance realistic and relatable to people who’ve had similar relationships. Meanwhile, Dana’s career at The New York Times is thriving, and she eventually gets promoted to senior editor.

It’s not all smoth sailing though for Charles and Dana’s relationship. Charles’ Army career means that he has to move around a lot. There are also instances where Dana gets upset because she thinks that Charles seems to care more about his Army colleagues than he cares about her, while he thinks she’s not understanding enough about his military responsibilities. These disagreements about his Army commitments cause the biggest conflicts in their relationship. After 9/11 happens and Charles is deployed to Iraq, the relationship gets put even more to the test.

“A Journal for Jordan” can be a little too slow-paced for some viewers, but the movie remains thoroughly grounded in reality. The fact of the matter is that in real life, a lot of romances go in stops and starts. People who want to see a movie with a lot of melodramatic contrivances found in too many romantic dramas will be disappointed. There’s no love triangle, no meddling best friend, no race to the airport to tell someone they want to make the relationship work. People who are tired of seeing these over-used clichés in romantic movies will be delighted that “A Journal for Jordan” can’t be bothered with these clichés.

What audiences will get is an authentic look at a romance between emotionally mature and responsible adults. Adams gives a charming and engaging performance that exudes all the real qualities that strong, independent women have when they allow themselves to be open and vulnerable to love. Jordan is equally charismatic in his own way in portraying this Army sergeant with a strong moral compass, a deep sense of loyalty and a romantic side that many people look for in a partner.

Charles is not a flashy Romeo but someone who says and does what exactly what he means. And that’s so much more important than “big talkers” who make grandiose promises that they have no intention of keeping. Charles and Dana aren’t perfect, but when they make mistakes or hurt each other emotionally, they try to make things right. And they accept each other for who they are. That’s true love.

“A Journal for Jordan” is a refreshing example of a movie that shows what a lot of middle-class African Americans are really like. It’s become tiresome to see African American romances depicted in movies and TV shows as relationships plagued by crime, poverty or drugs. The reality is that many African Americans are a lot like Charles and Dana, so kudos to everyone involved who helped make this true story into a movie.

“A Journal for Jordan” is also about another type of love story that’s just as important, even though it doesn’t get as much screen time in the movie: the love between a parent and a child. The scenes of Jordan as a 12-year-old have a deep emotional impact because it’s when he starts to become very curious about his father. Jordan’s questions bring up heartbreaking memories for Dana, who has been reluctant to tell Jordan the details of how Charles died.

Even though most of the movie is about the mostly happy romance between Dana and Charles, make no mistake: There are several scenes in the movie that are intended to be tearjerkers. Two of these scenes involve a bunch of red balloons that Charles had with him on a day that he and Dana were spending some time outdoors with Jordan. Another emotionally charged sequence happens during a trip that Dana and 12-year-old Jordan take to Washington, D.C.

The pace might drag a little in some areas of “A Journal for Jordan,” but if you care about these characters and what happens to them, then the movie is watchable from beginning to end. You don’t have to come from a military family to relate to what happens in the movie. Anyone who has treasured memories of a loved one can relate to this true story, which has been eloquently expressed in this inspirational film.

Columbia Pictures will release “A Journal for Jordan” in U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2021.

Review: ‘Notturno,’ starring Murtadah Jabbar Bedan, Ali Ali, Fawaz Murad and Lamya Saydo

January 30, 2021

by Carla Hay

Murtadah Jabbar Bedan in “Notturno” (Photo courtesy of Super LTD)


Directed by Gianfranco Rosi

Arabic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place on the borders between Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon, the documentary “Notturno” features an all-Arabic group of people who have been affected by war and ISIS in their areas.

Culture Clash: The documentary, which was filmed over three years, includes survivor stories about the traumatic effects of war.

Culture Audience: “Notturno” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in very atmospheric, cinéma vérité-styled documentaries about war-torn Middle Eastern culture.

Ali Ali in “Notturno” (Photo courtesy of Super LTD)

For a documentary that’s set in war-torn areas of the Middle East, “Notturno” (directed by Gianfranco Rosi) is a film that’s a lot quieter than people might think it is. That’s because the movie does not feature any “battle scenes,” and there are many scenes in the movie where groups of people are gathered but they don’t talk very much. “Notturno” means “night” in Italian, and much of the movie takes place at night.

Filmed over three years on the borders between Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon, this documentary succeeds in its aim to have a “fly on the wall” perspective, with no “expert” commentary, no voiceovers, no re-enactments and no amination. “Notturno” is essentially a “slice of life” film that shows what life is like in these war-torn regions for a variety of people, most of whom are not identified by name until the end credits.

The movie begins on a tragic note, with a procession of grieving, middle-aged and elderly women going through an abandoned building that is later revealed to be a place where their military sons and husbands were tortured and killed. They are crying and praying as they mourn for their loved ones. The woman who is the most distressed wails, “I can feel your presence in this room … My son, why didn’t they take my life instead of yours?”

Later, she looks at a photo of her son’s murdered body. The rope that he was strangled with is still around his neck. She says that she’s in the room where he died. And then, as if she comes a grim acceptance, she says out loud, as if speaking to the spirit of her dead son: “I can’t feel your presence anymore.”

The movie also follows a poacher named Murtadah Jabbar Bedar in various scenes. He is shown in quiet solitude as he makes a journey to marshy areas with a gun to look for game that he can hunt. A teenager named Ali Ali is also prominently featured in the documentary, as he tries to get odd jobs and look for bread to help feed his family. One of the temporary jobs he’s able to get is helping a man as an armed guard for the man’s field of crops.

Women who are Peshmerga guerrillas are shown gathered, mostly in silence, as they get ready for surveillance and when they got back to their station to sleep for the night. These women have an obvious camaraderie, but their quietness is in stark contrast to the steady chatter that would be happening if they were Western soldiers. The flip side to the precarious duties of these female soldiers is shown in another scene, where a distressed mother checks a message on her cell phone and finds out that her daughter has been captured in Syria and has secretly made this phone call while in captivity. The mother begins to cry, and her helplessness is heartbreaking to watch.

Even though there are signs of domestic tranquility, the threats of war soldiers and ISIS terrorists are always looming. In one of the movie’s early scenes, a couple of young married parents are out on a date in an outdoor rooftop area while the sound of military gunfire can be heard in background. The couple tries to make pleasant small talk with each other while she smokes a hookah.

The man says that it looks like it’s going to rain. His wife answers, “Is there anything more beautiful than rain?” After their meal, they go inside and tuck their children into bed. And then he changes off into a white outfit, goes out side with a drum, and walks through the streets while he sings religious hymns.

“Notturno” also takes viewers inside a psychiatric facility, where a small group of patients (five men and one woman) are participating in a play and are given the script by the play director. The actors/patients in this play are named Walid Hamdon, Farid Philip, Kifah Nuri, Ahmed Mohammed, Abbas Mustafa and Mayade Mhammod. The director tells them that the play is about their homeland and “the tyranny, the wars, the invasion, the occupation and the extremists.” The actors/patients are seen rehearsing their lines in their rooms, and it soon becomes clear to them that they are going to be in a play that advocates for freedom from these social ills.

“Notturno” makes its biggest impact by showing how the traumas of war and terrorism have affected children. In multiple scenes in the movie, children have made drawings of some of the horrors that they witnessed. The show the illustrations to a woman who looks like a schoolteacher who also does therapy counseling. Two sisters—Lamya Saydo (who looks about 9 or 10 years old) and Mina Syado (who looks about 6 or 7 years old)—describe their drawings and talk about themselves and other people being beaten and tortured by ISIS soldiers.

A boy named Fawaz Murad, who looks like he’s about 11 or 12 years old, discusses his illustrations and goes into harrowing details about the torture he endured and the murders he witnessed. He describes seeing people being beheaded. And he also says that ISIS soldiers ordered their captives to become cannibals. He stutters as he tells these stories and his eyes look forever haunted.

“Notturno” is not the type of movie that has mass appeal because of the often-disturbing subject matter and because it’s not a typical war documentary. The long stretches of silence in the movie are meant to show that fear and oppression have gripped these regions so much, that many of the people refrain from talking freely and out loud. “Notturno” director Rosi, who is also the movie’s director of photography, has a lot of visually stunning cinematography (especially outdoors) in the documentary, which shows great appreciation for the natural landscapes of the regions. However, the greater appreciation that “Notturno” conveys is for the resilience of the people in these war-torn areas.

Super LTD released “Notturno” in select U.S. cinemas on January 22, 2021. The movie was released on VOD and Hulu on January 29, 2021.

Review: ‘Sergio’ (2020), starring Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas

April 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Senhorinha Gama Da Costa Lobo, Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas in “Sergio” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Sergio” (2020)

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.

Ana de Armas and Wagner Moura in “Sergio” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

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.

Copyright 2017-2024 Culture Mix