‘Sergio’ struggles to hold attention (IANS Review; Rating: * * & 1/2)

“Sergio” (Netflix film); Cast: Wagner Moura, Ana de Armas; Direction: Greg Barker; Rating: * * & 1/2 (two and a half stars)

By Vinayak Chakravorty

“Sergio” stars Brazilian ace Wagner Moura — that’s Pablo Escobar in “Narcos” for you — with Cuban origin actress Ana de Armas. You’ve seen her knock on the doors of global stardom with “Knives Out” so far, and she is the next Bond girl in “No Time To Die”. The mainstream marquee introduction would be enough for most to check out this biopic.

Those who dig deeper into international cinema, though, would perhaps want to check out the name of the director. Greg Barker’s resume as a chronicler of contemporary human history includes brilliant documentary efforts as “Koran By Heart” and “The Longest War”. That in itself gives this project added heft.

With “Sergio”, Barker moves into feature film terrain. The film is a bio-pic of Brazilian United Nations diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, a titan of world socio-politics whose efforts at international harmony and security left a global impact. For over three decades, from Cambodia and Indonesia to East Timor and Iraq, de Mello strived for sustainable peace across the globe.

If Sergio Vieira de Mello’s name finds no connect in your mindspace, Barker summed it aptly. He is, the filmmaker once described, “the most important guy you’ve never heard of”.

Barker’s film, however, does not focus on the diplomat. Although the course of his calling substantially drives the flow of events, the nearly two-hour narrative focuses more on the man behind the emissary. It is more about Sergio, as the title suggests, than de Mello. The scipt tries exploring the story of love, in the life of a person who worked diligently at ensuring the world was ruled by love and not hate.

The story opens on a note of high drama. It is 2003, and Serio Vieira de Mello (Moura) is a Brazilian diplomat sent to Iraq to “find out what role the UN can play in an Iraq run by the US,” as a media voiceover puts it. Juxtaposing Sergio’s arrival in Baghdad with scenes of the subsequent, fateful bombing in the city that would claim his life, the story moves ahead oscillating between past and present.

Flashback takes us to three months earlier. Between thwarting diplomatic tangles and tackling the media barrage of questions, Sergio also finds time to exchange little sweet nothings with colleague Carolina (de Armas) while brewing up a quick cuppa or her. Carolina, the love of his life, doesn’t want him in Bagdhad. Sergio feels he must help negotiate the withdrawal of American troops so that Iraq regains sovereignty.

Greg Barker has drawn from his own documentary of 2009 on the same subject, also titled “Sergio”, to set up the basic narrative of his new film. That film drew from Pulitzer Prize-winner Samantha Power’s biography of de Mello, titled “Sergio: One Man’s Fight To Save The World”, and was a more comprehensive take on his life, tracing till the time he was killed in the Canal Hotel bombing in Iraq on August 19, 2003.

The problem with Barker’s new film is his insistence on exploring Sergio as an emotional being and undermining him as a key figure in contemporary world politics. The latter would perhaps have given more urgency to the drama.

The problem with “Sergio” is it lacks USP. In itself, the film struggles to hold your attention after a while but for Moura’s effortless portrayal in the titular role. The actor balances his hallmark screen presence with admirable poise to bring alive Sergio de Mello’s diplomatic essence.

Early on in the film, asked to give a brief introduction of himself, Sergio — a United Nations veteran of over three decades — replies: “You can’t sum up 34 years in three minutes”

Greg Barker has tried summing up around three months of a phenomenal man in a two-hour film. He surely could have done it in a more engaging manner.

(Vinayak Chakravorty can be reached at vinayak.c@ians.in)