Saturday, February 1, 2020

Sundance with Abe: Sergio

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the seventh time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can, as well as video reviews uploaded to YouTube.

Directed by Greg Barker

The life of a diplomat is inherently interesting since that person gets the chance to travel and interact with many different cultures. The trajectory of their careers are also likely noteworthy, inspired by some drive to facilitate change, commerce, and communication and propelled by strong negotiating skills and social competence. That can all be conveyed in film without really diving into the motivations and backstory of a protagonist, resulting in a spotlight on select formative moments rather than the entire story. That can be effective, but it also leave audiences yearning for a fuller picture.

Sergio Vieira de Mello (Wagner Moura) is trapped under rubble in the wake of an explosion in his Baghdad office while he is serving as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2003. As he lays there, unsure if rescue will come, what means most to him comes flooding back. His time spent in East Timor as an administrator shaped much of how he works with leaders, and it also introduced him to the love of his life, Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas), who has come with him to Baghdad. Sergio’s eagerness to please others and work across lines is an asset, but also something that has put him in a dangerous position.

Documentary filmmaker Greg Barker makes his narrative debut with an adaptation of his own nonfiction film of the same name, which screened at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. This feels all too much like a “movie” rather than a straightforward biopic, opting for a focus on romance and overdramatization over reviewing the important accomplishments of Sergio’s life. While there is something compelling in how the relationship forms onscreen, the extended focus on Sergio in the aftermath of the bombing feels unnecessary and highly speculative when other content could have easily filled the time.

Moura is best known for playing Pablo Escobar on Netflix’s “Narcos,” and here he sheds some pounds, shaves his beard, and dons a much more respectful attitude to play a much more straight-laced political operator. He’s nearly a decade younger than the real Sergio was during these events, but he infuses an affirming energy and righteousness into his performance. Opposite him, the incredibly visible de Armas delivers another knockout turn. The film, unfortunately, doesn’t feel like a satisfyingly comprehensive take on Sergio’s life, settling for decent cinematic moments rather than sincere historical content.


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