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'Sergio' review: Worthy but flawed biopic of UN diplomat

Sergio Vieira de Mello (Wagner Moura) in Netflix's

Sergio Vieira de Mello (Wagner Moura) in Netflix's "Sergio."  Credit: Netflix/Karima Shehata

MOVIE "Sergio"

WHEN|WHERE Streaming on Netlfix.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The story of renowned United Nations diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello gets the biopic treatment in "Sergio," which focuses on his tenure as special representative of the secretary-general in Iraq and includes significant moments of his work to secure the independence of East Timor from Indonesia in the early 2000s. 

De Mello died in the August 19, 2003, suicide truck bombing of UN Headquarters in Baghdad that killed at least 22 people and wounded over 100.

While the movie uses that horror as a framing device, filmmaker Greg Barker and screenwriter Craig Borten emphasize scenes that illustrate the highest ideal of what international diplomacy can and should be, as well as the romance that develops between de Mello ("Narcos" star Wagner Moura) and fellow UN official Carolina Larreira (Ana de Armas of "Knives Out").

Barker, a documentarian making the transition to narrative filmmaking here, is having quite the prolific moment. "Sergio" launched on Netflix on Friday and his documentary "The Longest War," about the war in Afghanistan, premieres on Showtime on Sunday night. 

MY SAY There's no question that Sérgio Vieira de Mello is a worthy subject for this sort of cinematic treatment. We could all use more stories about people who lived their lives committed to doing the right thing at great personal cost, exemplifying what the United Nations can be at its best. 

But the filmmaker, who has previously made a documentary about the diplomat, runs into a familiar problem when it comes to depicting this sort of important person: the movie veers too close, too often to hagiography. 

The best biopics complicate the picture of even someone who devoted everything to building a global community and leaving the world in a better place. "Sergio," adapted from the former United States UN Ambassador Samantha Power's book "Sergio: One Man's Fight to Save the World," makes overtures in this direction but never really feels comfortable in doing so.

It mostly dwells on scenes of the diplomat on two fronts: working to get a handle on the tremendous chaos and instability of Iraq in the early months after the American invasion, and shuttling between East Timor and Indonesia to secure the former's independence.

In depicting the former, Barker smartly focuses on the extent to which the United Nations and its top representative misjudged the effect of its presence in Iraq, and the degree to which operating in a familiar mode of open engagement could not be possible. 

But that thread only occupies a fraction of the movie: the rest of the time is spent on scenes on the Southeast Asian island that are warmly lit and tinged with romanticism that registers as a bit off given the seriousness of the subject.

Moura and de Armas are top-notch actors, and it would be wonderful to see them co-star in a love story one day, but there's little time for it here. The scenes of their characters falling for each other and sharing intimate times together are a distraction from the essence of this narrative.

Even an otherwise major moment in which Larreira takes de Mello to meet a Timorese woman and hear what she hopes for the future of her country is diluted by being framed within the context of their romance, reducing a fascinating story to a tired cliché.

BOTTOM LINE: "Sergio" is a worthy biopic in some respects but it doesn't complicate its subject enough to resonate.

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