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Non-Review Review: Sergio

Sergio belongs to the same school of earnest, overwrought, tonally misjudged, narratively unfocused, clumsily paced biopics that includes Noble, The Price of Desire and A Girl from Mogadishu.

This films offer heartwarming stories about truly exceptional individuals. There is undoubtedly value in that. However, the genre often confuses subject for substance. These biographies assume that the story they are telling is so compelling and so engaging that the actual art of storytelling doesn’t matter, that the basic mechanics of constructing a satisfying narrative or balancing a consistent tone or finding an interesting hooks are fundamentally less important than the simple fact that they are about something that makes them inherently “worthy.” Worthy of attention, worthy of praise, worthy of time.

“You can’t spell U.N. with U.”

Sergio certainly tells a story that is worth telling. It is an adaptation of the life of Sérgio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations diplomat. By all accounts, de Mello was a genuinely exceptional person who made a very real and very tangible difference to the world. There is a compelling story to be told here, a life that is worthy of study and discussion. Indeed, director Greg Barker seems to think so. Sergio is Barker’s first narrative feature, and it serves as a companion piece to his 2009 documentary of the same title. It’s easy to understand why Barker was so drawn to the subject.

Unfortunately, Sergio is a complete misfire. It is a disaster. It is a clumsily constructed film with no strong sense of identity or purpose, with little to say about its central character or his circumstances beyond “this was a remarkable person.” However, even that is communicated through exposition and information dumps rather than through actual storytelling.

“You wanna live like common people.
You wanna see whatever common people see.”

It’s hard to know where to start with Sergio, because Sergio itself doesn’t seem to know where to start. (Incidentally, the film’s title excludes the accent over the “e”, which is a strange choice.) Sergio essentially offers its audience four different openings in the space of four minutes: there is the framing device of a retrospective introduction, the visceral trauma of the aftermath of a bomb attack, flashbacks to a romantic dinner, and then flashbacks to de Mello’s arrival in Iraq. All of this happens very quickly, as if Sergio cannot conceive of a single path into its subject, and so tries to take every possible approach.

Of course, Sergio latter attempts to offer a narrative justification for this scattershot opening, but this becomes a problem of itself. The flashbacks and time skips that open the film are brought back around again at the end. The closing twenty minutes of Sergio effectively play out extended cuts of the clumsily heart-string-tugging moments that already felt indulgent when they played over the film’s introductory sequence. More than that, the framing device that the film eventually settles on – the decision to anchor the narrative in one of those four moments in particular – is a cliché.

A broken record.

Part of the problem is that Sergio really doesn’t have much to say about its lead character, beyond the fact that he is great. Most of the characters within Sergio already know Sérgio, recognising him like some sort of diplomatic rock star. A soldier digging through the rubble gasps when he realises the celebrity in his presence. “Jesus Christ, you’re Sérgio de Mello,” the soldier remarks. Later on, Sérgio begins flirting with a fellow jogger. “I’m Sérgio,” he offers by way of introduction. She responds, “Sérgio de Mello.” At the climax, his lover tries to break through the perimeter around the bomb site. “I need to be with my Sérgio!” she exclaims. to guard. “Sérgio de Mello?” the guard responds.

Sergio struggles to articulate what it is about the title character that makes him so interesting. The film offers some details of his life, but a lot of it feels like recycled character beats from any other study of an ambitious humanitarian. Sérgio is a man who cares deeply about the larger world. Even as he lies on the cusp of death, his thoughts are of the Iraqis rather than himself, pleading, “Please, don’t let them pull the mission out.” However, all the characters around him – including his lover and his children from an earlier marriage – articulate his biggest flaw. Sérgio is just too selfless. He gives too much of himself to the world, depriving those closest to him.

Father afield.

Sergio is not a movie that does subtlety. At one point, Bradley Whitford wanders into the film as Paul Bremer, the White House’s representative to Iraq. The casting is pretty clever, the optimism of the Clinton era politics of The West Wing curdling into the cynicism of the Bush administration. The dialogue is blunt. “Sérgio, you’re an ambitious guy,” Bremer states for the audience. “Attacking the US is not the best way to become the next Secretary General, I can tell you that.” Later, Sérgio’s girlfriend Carolina attacks him using lines plucked from a generic romantic drama, “I know what I want from my life, Sergio. I’m not going to wait around while you decide what you want from yours.”

It’s an incredibly shallow and conventional study of greatness, but it is very much in keeping with the way in which Sergio chooses to tells its story. This is a film, after all, that includes the awkwardly shoehorned exposition that “this project really shows the power of microfinancing” in the middle of a meet cute between its leading actors. It also includes a sequence in which Sérgio himself ventures out into the world and meets the real people living in these chaotic regions. They insists that their anxieties might be too small and parochial for an international statesman like him, but he listens anyway. Inevitably, he cries.

A washout.

Watching Sergio often feels like watching a very regal cabinet being assembled by somebody who has never seen a cabinet in real life, but has printed some instructions off the internet. This is the only explanation for some of the movie’s more surreal and tasteless choices, such as an awkward explicit gold-tinted sex scene between Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas. The soundtrack makes the scene seem particularly creepy, as if it had been lifted from a late eighties or early nineties feature that was worried that the audience might have accidentally nodded off during discussions about the scheduling of free and fair elections in Baghdad.

Sergio is a disaster, a film that feels almost like a betrayal of its subject.

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