The 400-Word Review: Sergio
By Sean Collier
April 17, 2020
Does a standard-issue biopic become more interesting when its subject is relatively unknown?
Turns out, it does not. It just makes the normal beats of the genre a little more bewildering.
“Sergio,” a new biopic debuting on Netflix, offers an account of the life of Sérgio Vieira de Mello, a United Nations diplomat whose work focused on ending long-simmering conflict and mitigating the effects of war on impoverished populations. The Brazilian-born diplomat is a significant figure; his work was of vital importance, and he was key in a stunning and devastating turning point in the American invasion of Iraq.
I didn’t know any of that, however, before I saw the film. I didn’t know his name. That could be my failing — those who were following the news more carefully in the mid-2000s may be more familiar — but I’m willing to bet the average viewer scrolling through Netflix’s new releases doesn’t know de Mello, either.
A more pure biography might’ve been a better choice. It would’ve served to provide proper historic background and context on an undersung figure. That’s not the mission of “Sergio.” The film, from war documentarian Greg Barker (who also made a doc about de Mello), instead sticks very close to the blueprint used on awards-bait biopics for figures as diverse as Judy Garland and Nelson Mandela.
The majority of the running time is spent on the relationship between de Mello (Wagner Moura) and his partner Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas), who connected while de Mello was negotiating the independence of East Timor. This is a paint-by-numbers movie romance; further time is frittered away on de Mello’s frosty relationship with U.S. envoy Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford).
The time spent on de Mello’s efforts in East Timor and Iraq — the only two points in his career depicted — is intriguing but not gripping. Perhaps in a more deft biography, it would be; here, it callously seems like background dressing for a May-October romance.
It doesn’t help that de Armas brings a movie-star energy that easily outclasses the rest of the cast. She does well — anyone who saw her breakout performance in “Knives Out” would assume as much — but her co-star brings little besides a handsome face. “Sergio” has good intentions, but feels like little more than the required reading for a geopolitics class with a lengthy sex scene to break up the facts.
My Rating: 4/10
“Sergio” is streaming now on Netflix.