Netflix’s new biopic, Sergio, follows the life of the famed Brazilian United Nations diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello. His extraordinary life was driven by the fight for human rights as he helped refugees and those in need within collapsed nations across the world. His resume rose him high in the U.N’s arsenal of expert negotiators. Sergio mainly takes place at the peak of the United States’ occupation of Iraq in 2003. With a government in need of being rebuilt from the ground up, this can only be a job for Vieira de Mello. Unfortunately, it would be his last.
Director Greg Barker puts his experience in politically focused documentary filmmaking to test. His previous works include The Final Year, Homegrown: The Counter-Terror Dilemma, and of course HBO’s doc on Vieira de Mello also simply titled Sergio. Netflix’s film is his first narrative feature and this fact clearly bleeds on screen for better and for worse. Barker has a crystal clear love and admiration not only for Vieira de Mello’s work but also his human spirit. This translation into a feature film results in a solid biopic that packs a few punches.
Barker elevates his film higher than some of the other “based on true event’ stories Netflix has produced. Given his experience, he incorporates a mix of real-life footage to contrast the narrative footage of actors. In most cases, this works because there is truly no better way sometimes to show the horrors of war than by just showing the real thing. Though this boosts the film as a genuine look into the casualties of politically driven violence, some moments slip. The use of archival footage in Sergio is a double-edged sword because when it does not land, the awkward feeling within the viewer is hard to shake off. Although, it should be noted that the final use of this method pays off incredibly well.
On the more unconventional side, Sergio mainly operates as a love story. Most biopics put the love lives of their subjects as secondary or further back on the agenda. Barker’s film is a true ode to Vieira de Mello and his partner Carolina Larriera. The Argentine economist worked with Vieria de Mello in the field during the latter part of his career. How they cross paths is unique and the film portrays their duality with great affinity. This same affinity is often taken a little too far; dialogue and direction often make Sergio a little too melodramatic for its own good. Even though the film reaches conventional levels of drama, leading stars Wagner Moura (Narcos) and Ana de Armas (Knives Out) save the day.
Both stars fit into the roles of Vieira de Mello and Larriera more than respectively. They bring individual nuance while creating a compelling bond. Even when some minor things fall flat, the viewer will be willing to put it aside just for them. The film may have a single focused title but it undoubtedly belongs to the two of them. Moura’s essence and vitality make Vieira de Mello feel more than just an impersonation. De Armas brings essential humanism to balance out the heavy politics. Thanks to great performances, costumes, and makeup, the biopic never feels like a simple Hollywood reenactment.
Structurally, Sergio is a little more on the bold side. Built as a self-reflection of the man’s life rather than just a walkthrough. This allows for more abstract decision making and Barker is able to deliver with some notable dream-like imagery. It is best left unspoiled but for a biopic, Sergio‘s structure can be truly admirable. Once again, with the positives of a nonlinear timeline come some downfalls. It often gets too contrived with the end goal getting slightly blurred along the way. There comes a point where title cards of different places in time and location become a nuisance.
Sergio does come through in the end. Worth one’s time thanks to its lead stars- it will be hard for some to hold in tears roll the credits. Though the audience will have to give some leeway for faults, the film’s inspection of the conflict between Iran and the U.S is necessary. The world is not perfect and humans try to make it worse every day. Vieira de Mello was the needle in the corrupt haystack willing to risk it all for civility. Sergio brings it all home by giving shimmers of this and for a better world.
Score: ★★★ 1/2