Sérgio resists easy answers to global violence

Events unfolding in Afghanistan are likely to breathe new life into the movie Sérgio

The 2020 film chronicles the rise and untimely death of Sérgio Vieira de Mello. De Mello was a Brazilian diplomat who eventually became the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights. Many considered him a strong candidate for becoming UN Secretary-General. 

Al-Qaeda had other ideas. 

The birth of a global “fixer”

Sérgio does a solid job of presenting the compassion, hopes, and contradictions surrounding a man who became known as a “fixer.” The movie starts out as Sérgio (Wagner Maura) is assigned to Iraq in the wake of the U.S. led invasion that toppled Sadam Hussein. 

Unfolding in flashback and flash forward, the audience gains insight into the man who would end up at the center of the infamous 2003 Canal Hotel bombing in Iraq. The suicide bomber killed more than 20 members of the UN staff. It also dashed early hopes of a moderating UN presence in the region.

Trapped in the blast, de Mello reflects on his life as US army reservists work tirelessly to free Sérgio and his close advisor Gil (Brian F. O’Byrne) from the rubble. Army Sergeant William von Zehle (Garrett Dillahunt), a skeptic of the UN’s accommodating policies, finds out who de Mello is. Despite his personal reservations, and the imminent danger of further collapse, the two build a rapport that reveals the complexity of both world views.

Idealism built on success

As Sérgio considers his fate, he recollects his life through a series vignettes. He successfully freed refugees held by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. He brought peace to East Timor and Indonesia. 

In one particularly notable scene in East Timor, we see microfinance – funding for very small businesses, typically owned and operated by one-person – empower women traumatized by 24 years of bloody civil war. Indeed, a defining theme of Sérgio’s work is empowering everyday people. He sees the creativity and commitment to rising above the chaos even as they serve as pawns in civil wars that tear about countries.

Critics of America’s heavy-handed foreign policy will find much to admire in the story. The arrogance of US diplomats, particularly Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford), and the US military are in full view in this telling.  

But screenwriter Craig Borten and Director Greg Barker, who built their story on the 2009 documentary of the same name, steer clear of a full-throttle critique of foreign policy militarism militarism. Their story lands in the middle. De Mello’s naive beliefs about peace and pollyannaish faith in human character plays off the arrogance implicit in US militarism. While the movie is sympathetic to de Mello, audiences won’t be left with pat answers about the best way forward in hot spots in the Middle East or West Asia.

A poignant drama with a sizzling romance

A highlight of the movie is the sizzling romance between de Mello and his economist girlfriend Carolina Larriera. Larriera gave up Wall Street to work with the poor. They meet during a peace-building mission in Indonesia. The chemistry between Wagner Moura and Ana de Aramas is palpable. Their relationships does more to humanize Sérgio and his idealism than any of the movie’s dialogue or plot shifts. 

Overall, Sérgio is a compelling drama. It also follows the life of Sergio Viera de Mello quite closely. It’s also a poignant reminder that pollyannaish faith in the human character can only go so far. 

Author: SR Staley
SR Staley has one more than 11 literary awards for his fiction and nonfiction writing. He is on the full-time faculty of the College and Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University as well as a film critic and research fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California. His award-winning Pirate of Panther Bay series (syppublishing.com) has won awards in historical fiction, mainstream & literary fiction, young adult fiction, and reached the finals in women's fiction. His most recent book is "The Beatles and Economics: Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and the Making of a Cultural Revolution" due out in April 2020 (Routledge).