Just five days after the creation of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq, a lone suicide bomber drove an explosive-filled truck onto the grounds of Baghdad’s Canal Hotel, long used as the Iraq headquarters of the UN, and detonated its payload. Nearly two dozen people died in the bombing, and the lasting impact of the attack changed the course of UN diplomacy forever. It also ended the life of the beloved UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, who had undertaken the job in Iraq as a likely send-off to a storied career, the final stop in a life spent in service to others.
All that is not immediately clear in the opening of Greg Barker’s unfocused “Sergio,” which follows Vieira de Mello (Wagner Moura) through a kaleidoscopic biopic far too occupied with a whiplash-inducing conceit that finds the diplomat ruminating on his life while buried underneath feet of concrete rubble. One moment, Sergio is screaming for help, the next, he’s back swimming in the warm waters of his native Rio. The start of his tenure in Baghdad gets plenty of screentime, as does his successful work in an ailing East Timor. Somehow, Craig Borten’s fussy script even finds the space to build in an epic love story, all the better to utilize co-star Ana de Armas and her outstanding abilities to emote.
The film’s many time and setting jumps are easy to follow, thanks to a series of intertitles that appear so regularly that scenes without them eventually feel like the weird ones (later, Barker even starts throwing in on-screen notations about new characters, rather than just introducing them through the narrative). But to what end? The many threads that Barker attempts to pull together never add up to anything more than just that, disparate parts of one remarkable life. That Vieira de Mello was believed to have been specifically targeted in the attack because of his work in East Timor (which did involve removing the new island nation from the claimed Islamic Caliphate, thus drawing the ire of a proto version of ISIS) seems like one way to connect all of the film’s many elements, and yet the film never does that.
Peppered with a variety of interesting characters, from Sergio’s devoted bodyguard Gaby (Clemens Schick) and a truly unrecognizable Bradley Whitford (at least his voice can give him away), “Sergio” missteps as often as it delights. Brían F. O’Byrne appears as Sergio’s right-hand man Gil, a layered role reduced by the revelation that he’s something of a composite character. Garret Dillahunt is the soldier attempting to save Sergio and Gil, a quest that would have enough emotion behind it even without a dumb twist that later reveals something of a past between him and Sergio.
It’s all so cloying, and ham-handed lines meant to smooth over bumps and offer connection to all those different pieces of his life never click. Sergio is frequently reminded that Baghdad is not East Timor (“This isn’t East Timor,” a colleague tells him, somehow not the same colleague who also tells him he’s not in Brazil or France anymore) and that he is the exception to many rigid rules (“You’ve always managed to defy the odds,” yet another pal spouts). But we already know that, and so does Sergio. Barker and Borten’s affection for their subject is clear (and earned), but “Sergio” never trusts its viewers to feel that same way.
While not widely known to most people outside the diplomatic community (and, of course, the very people he helped, who all seemed to love him, understandably), “Sergio” offers enough information that even those unaware of his legacy should learn plenty. So why does it skimp on the most important pieces? Why is the impact of the bombing and Vieira de Mello’s death relegated to an epilogue (rendered in on-screen text, of course)? Why the hell isn’t Vieira de Mello interesting enough to lead a film without all those narrative tricks?
At least Moura is excellent in the role, finding dimension in an undercooked screenplay that seems oddly resistant to showing Vieira de Mello as anything less than a saint on Earth. The second half of the film does attempt to wrestle with his complex family life — when love interest Carolina (de Armas) shrewdly tells him she doesn’t mess with married men, it’s a jolt to both Sergio and the audience, as a wife had never appeared to be part of the package. Even that’s explained away by both a flashback to an ill-fated visit with his sons (one of the film’s best segments) and a long-winded explanation from Moura himself.
It’s a testament to both Moura and de Armas that they are engaging enough to keep those exposition-laden scenes afloat. And yet even Moura and de Armas’ sizzling chemistry presents its own problems to an already hobbled feature; why, after all, is this biopic about an exceptional human built mostly around a love affair? There’s no question there is much to admire about both Vieira de Mello and Moura’s soaring portrayal of him, but it’s all buried under the weight of a biopic too afraid to really show the truth about a flawed world, and a flawed man who loved it.
“Sergio” is now streaming on Netflix.