At the beginning of "The Red Chapel," the 2010 exposé of North Korean society directed by Danish comedian Mads Brügger, the filmmaker establishes his ruse from the outset, swiftly enunciating his intention to satirize the country's oppressive extremes by pretending to embrace them. His follow-up, "The Ambassador," uses a similar routine to display the corrupt industry of blood diamond smuggling in the heart of Africa. However, Brügger takes one audacious step further by making no overt declaration of his real motivations. Viewers are trapped in the illusion along with Brügger's targets.
Brügger's chameleonesque approach finds him gaining access to faux diplomatic credentials and assuming the role of a Liberian consul in the Central African Republic — "a lawless territory the size of Texas," as Brügger puts it in his ongoing voiceover — while engaging in backroom deals with various shifty power players eager to aid and profit from his agenda. A bald, neatly bearded European donning sunglasses and a deadpan expression, Brügger nimbly assumes the role he has created for himself: a slick businessman who takes advantage of bureaucratic loopholes in service of a mercilessly capitalistic agenda. The movie hovers in a seriously problematic gray area. Whereas Sacha Baron Cohen's parodic antics find him taking on the role of a cartoonish naif, Brügger's more controlled approach turns him into a real-life bad guy.
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.
Employing a pair of seemingly clueless pygmies and looking down his nose at the country's impoverished class at every turn, Brügger is a perfectly ugly stereotype — racist, avaricious and exclusively self-interested. He plays the part so well that recently Liberia's government has pursued legal action against the jokester for… what, exactly? In theory, he has done the nation a favor by amplifying a major problem; even as his path grows increasingly unethical, he remains firmly within the boundaries of the law. For that very reason, some of the participants in his ploy could see "The Ambassador" as a bona fide celebration of their commitment to monetary pursuits — especially once the con man gets conned back.
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.