In 2009, filmmaker Greg Barker released the documentary Sergio about the fascinating life and untimely death of UN administrator Sergio de Mello. The film went on to be a festival darling, winning a handful of awards around the world while serving as both a eulogy for the diplomat and a much-needed introduction for those people who had only casually heard his name, if at all.

When production was complete, though, Barker says he couldn’t get de Mello’s story out of his mind and also felt there was a personal side of the story that he regrettably wasn’t able to tell in the documentary. Eleven years later, Barker’s feature film debut (also titled Sergio) stars Narcos’ Wagner Moura as a man known the world over by just his first name. In the sense that everyone should learn about de Mello and his contributions to human rights and diplomacy, Barker’s redux film works. As a motion picture worthy of its subject matter, however, it is at best a PoliSci crash course of the man’s finer moments, peppered with tedious scenes of a “personal side”, which, it turns out, isn’t that necessary after all.

Framed the exact same way as the documentary, Sergio begins and ends with de Mello filming an orientation video for new UN employees before the film quickly cuts to the explosion at UN Headquarters in Baghdad that ended his life in 2003. We then jump back in time to his career milestones, including de Mello’s successful efforts to earn East Timor its independence from Indonesia in 2002 and, before that, his work in Cambodia negotiating human rights issues with the Khmer Rouge.

Sergio de Mello’s personal life comes into play in the form of Ana de Armas as Carolina Larriera, an economics advisor for the UN who was his common law wife (though not officially until more than a decade after his death). Both Moura (who, distractingly, looks nothing like de Mello) and de Armas are at the top of their game and imbue their characters with a quiet but palpable humanity, but the storyline itself (in the form of Craig Borten’s sloth of a script) is where it all falls apart.

Sandwiching flashbacks within other flashbacks and devoting far too much time to the intimate moments that any common-sense person can simply infer, Sergio gets dragged down by the very thing Barker was hoping to inject into his feature film in the first place. Maybe it’s because I caught a few minutes of Top Gun when it aired on AMC last week, but I swear all that was missing from Sergio and Carolina’s breathy sex scene late in the film was a rousing refrain of “Take My Breath Away.”

If you don’t know the name Sergio de Mello, it’s not too late to learn it and then quickly grow to appreciate the legacy that “the world’s Mr. Fix It” left behind. By all means, though, go the documentary route, and spare yourself the schmaltz.


2/5 stars