I rarely ever think making a biographical film about a real person’s life is better than a well-made documentary, especially if the subject is or was alive in the modern age where there is perhaps ample footage and access to that person’s history. I get the reasoning behind it, of course, giving more exposure to a wider audience about a story that deserves telling, however I find that I’m never as fully invested in the movie as I perhaps should be, knowing that much of it has been given a dramatic spin, even if the performances are top-notch.
Such is the case for Greg Barker‘s earnest effort in trying to put more eyes on the work of Sérgio Vieira de Mello, a United Nations diplomat, who, in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the aftermath came to Baghdad to help with troop withdrawal and establishing independence. He’s not a name most know, though like many who who struggle for great things without the fame that seems to legitimize such greatness, contributed with incredible sacrifice to their cause.
Sérgio Vieira de Mello is well played by Wagner Moura, who most western audiences will recognize for his outstanding work in the hit series Narcos, playing the infamous Pablo Escobar, brings a terrific sense of humanity to the part. Moura is the entire weight of the film, his interpretation of that, for the sake of the movie, shaped by the larger moments of his time in Iraq and beyond. This is something that naturally leaves the project running like a highlight reel, and is sort of addressed in the first words of the story when we hear Sérgio mention off camera to an interviewer that its would be impossible to describe his decades of work in the three minutes she has given him to do so.
So, we follow him in flashbacks after the office building he is working in is bombed and he becomes trapped inside, wounded and looking close to death, his mind recalling mostly the love of his life, Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas), a UN consultant who has filled the holes in great void of his loveless marriage. We also revisit his diplomatic efforts, trying to patch together a peace that is, in these early stages, impossible, especially with so many decades of conflict between them. His greater fight is with the United States, represented by Bradley Whitford playing the very real Paul Bremer, himself an American diplomat with a strict agenda. This is but one entanglement Sérgio faces, and nothing he’s not seen before as we go further back into trouble he’s climbed out of in the past amid other dangerous global situations.
Meant to be the final memories of the man as he slips into oblivion, Sergio is a tapestry of assorted historical moments that creates a solid if not colorful illustration of his life, resonating with his geo-political importance and the intense affair and commitment to Carolina. This offers Barker opportunities to present it all with a kind of dreamy, somewhat hyper-realized style that works for the romantic sides of this but lessens most of the political punch, even as they are presented often with a robust intensity that absolutely does as intended.
De Armas is given plenty to help with the romance part, Caroline presented as a similar type as Sérgio, fiercely dedicated to her work and as equally attracted to helping those in trouble. She and Sérgio are instantly and powerfully drawn to each other and the two find themselves working together in such places as East Timor and Baghdad. De Armas has a significant presence in the story, even as Moura is in nearly every frame of the movie. That’s testament to her really, who is tasked with a difficult balance of being sexually alluring and a qualified humanitarian.
There are other professional relationships Sergio is bound to, some that are formed by his own sense of clarity in trying to find the right path, leading some to make choices they may not feel are right. These feel slight at first, even obligatory, but gain better traction as the matter of the bombed building takes hold in the last act. The collapsed structure becomes sort of metaphorical of everything he has done, and when that comes full circle, makes for some truly traumatic moments.
I mentioned that Sergio has a highlight reel feel about it, and once you see that this is Barker’s intention, it’s far easier to become attached to where it will end, even if that end is pretty clear from the start. It’s also good to know that Barker is not making this film without knowing exactly what he is doing, painting a purposefully filtered vision of Sérgio’s life. Barker is an expert, one might say, having also made a documentary on the subject in 2009, one that is of course sort of a reflection of this one, one the analytical and the other the expressive. Both have influence and serve their intent well, though I find myself more affected by the earlier effort.
Still, this latest film is well worth exploring and if for anything, helps inspire learning more. Most importantly, it is a reminder that we must not forget the names of those that made a difference.