Review: Sergio (2020)

Director: Greg Barker

Stars: Ana de Armas, Wagner Moura, Garret Dillahunt

Another week in lockdown, another Netflix Original. Credit to the global streaming giant; for the moment they’re still able to dutifully trickle out content for the bored and terrifyied masses. Among this week’s new crumbs for the pecking at is Greg Barker’s political biopic Sergio.

The Sergio of the title is UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello (Narcos star Wagner Moura) – “the world’s Mr Fix-It” – a Brazilian brought in to war-torn Baghdad during the occupation of Iraq in 2003. de Mello’s mandate is to broker peaceful relations on all fronts, in effect spinning plates as one regime crumbles and another fumbles its wishy-washy intentions. This ought to be enough to occupy him, but he also has heated chemistry with his capable colleague Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas) to contend with.

We’re advised of the catastrophic end of de Mello’s efforts from the get-go, as Barker’s film frames his arrival as a flashback. Some three months later, Sergio is trapped in a bombed UN building, relying on the valiant efforts of Msg. Bill von Zehle (Garret Dillahunt) to save his life. Zipping back and forth between these two time periods (with lengthy excursions back to his first encounters with Carolina three years prior), Sergio immediately becomes a reflection of the confusion and futility of the outside efforts to overhaul Iraqi politics on a calendar of mere months.

de Mello wishes to remain impartial – as he’s been instructed – but the US’s representatives pressure him to make the decisions they want. Said pressure comes  most keenly from Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford, comfortably doing his Josh Lyman bit). Sergio flits from earnest, downplayed political drama to soporific survival thriller, never quite giving either sensibility time to instill itself or flourish. It feels more like a movie switching channels. Flicking fitfully into ’90s-style steamy romance mode doesn’t overly help with the sense of tonal restlessness, either. What’s more, Barker seems more engaged by how attractive his actors are over any particular political comment.

Moura makes for a solid lead, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say de Armas was the casting draw here. Her star is on the rise and has been ever since Denis Villeneuve fetishised her in his Blade Runner sequel. Now she’s a Bond-girl in waiting and a capable star in her own right, having held court throughout Rian Johnson’s abundantly enjoyable Knives Out. Those of us with a taste for trash will also have kept her on the radar since Eli Roth’s Knock KnockHer work here is solid, but it’s not her vehicle. She’s the love interest and the material offers her little more (she’s still v. good).

Barker’s dealing with true life events and affords his material the kind of dutiful seriousness you’d readily expect, and the multi-pronged narrative only accentuates the floundering efforts of all parties in the Iraqi rubble. This feels like an intentional move – attempting to wrestle these politics into linear form would arguably do them a disservice – but the sense of the disjointed and the sketchy doesn’t ever truly escape him. Still, there are moments where the very contrast in the film works for Barker. After the hot and horny rains of East Asia, a cut to the dry heat of Iraq brings on another kind of thirst entirely. Either way, getting sated really isn’t an option here. Sergio is a film about frustration. And a frustrating one at that.

Cliché seems difficult to avoid also. See the scene where de Mello’s workaholic nature disappoints the children he doesn’t know well enough, or his fondness for spouting poetic insights into his ambitions; exclamations that sound eerily like they could be Savage Garden lyrics.

This is also ground Barker’s covered before, having made a documentary on de Mello under the very same title 11 years ago. I’ve not encountered that film, personally, but I would hope to find something a lot more revealing and provocative than the by-the-numbers dramatic reconstruction offered up here. At least the leads are very pretty. That might be enough to fill two hours of lockdown for you.


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