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Once Brügger manages to obtain credentials as Liberian Honorary Consul and Ambassador-at-Large, documents that include the signature of Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, they quickly provide him access to an entire universe of wheeling and dealing. In the CAR, he follows a path well traveled by existing consuls and other officials establishing a cover -- namely, developing a match factory in the country while seeking out diamonds from a nearby mine.
Enlisting the help of a corporate lawyer and other professionals schooled in the underground tactics he seeks to utilize, Brügger continually succeeds in his task. Carrying "envelopes of happiness" to bribe numerous authorities and loudly complaining whenever he doesn't get what he wants, Brügger's odyssey grows increasingly absurd even as he keeps playing it straight. That's both a marvel of performance art and the reason why "The Ambassador" wades into an ideologically sticky tangle it can't fully unravel. By revealing a problem, it also becomes one.
Throughout the movie, Brügger dances between the necessity of blurring moral lines and actually crossing them. His unfettered access to the blood diamond industry, often captured with mini-cameras hidden in the crevices of the rooms where his business deals take place, brilliantly pulls back the careful veil of legitimacy that diamond smugglers use to cover their uncouth intentions. But Brügger also carelessly indulges in mean-spirited and quasi-racist portraits of the largely dark-skinned individuals he involves in his scam -- a necessary evil, perhaps, but one that we never see him rectify. The closest Brügger comes to explaining his style is an early statement on the duality of his mission to go "beyond all moral boundaries known to man while still being a respectable member of society." It's a goal enacted less with a coy wink than with a violent elbow jab to the ribs.
Much of Brügger's satiric intentions are buried in the smiles and good cheer he shares with his enablers, providing a continuing ironic juxtaposition with the rampant greed and carelessness behind the entire scheme. The shady nature of his operation is routinely made clear by the candid nature of most of what he records, but one must constantly read between the lines to see the subtleties of his other assaults: The credits sequence contains Vera Lynn's 1939 song "We'll Meet Again," which Stanley Kubrick famously used to score the end of the world in "Dr. Strangelove." The track provides Brügger with his most blatant editorial act, as he sets the stage for a downward spiral of trickery at the core of contemporary politics that has no immediate solution. If he's a victim of his own vitriol, he still gets the point across: When it takes subversive mockery to show the truth, the system is seriously fucked.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Drafthouse Films releases "The Ambassador" in New York on Wednesday and in Los Angeles on Friday following buzz from the festival circuit. Its controversial ingredients might make it a tough sell in limited release, but it stands to do well in ancillary markets further down the road.