Sergio begins in darkness. The camera holds over the opening titles, and then we hear voices rising from the black screen, as if coming from the past – a memory. When the shot opens, former UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Sergio de Mello (Wagner Moura) faces the camera and addresses the world with a message of pressing action, closing with: “The real challenges…are out there in the field. Where people are suffering. Where people need you.” With these words, he is calling people to action, calling them to be involved in the mission that defined his entire life.
Greg Barker’s 2020 Netflix drama, Sergio, follows a series of de Mello’s foreign engagements as a leading UN figure, alongside the development of his relationship with Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas). The film charts his time on the ground in East Timor, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Iraq. He first meets Carolina while in East Timor, where he is set on the course of brokering the country’s independence from Indonesia. From there, she is present in all of his work – his negotiations with war criminals and other controversial figures, the tensions he navigates and often exacerbates between the UN and the military, and the politics of his decision-making during his fatal mission in Baghdad. She witnesses his every accomplishment, including the night of East Timor’s independence, which he chooses to spend with her over numerous esteemed invitations (including one from President Bill Clinton). Before encountering Carolina, he has chosen his professional life over his personal one, and her entrance into his life restores a balance seemingly long left neglected.
Sergio’s relationship with Carolina is its own story in itself. Yet up against the backdrop of Sergio’s notable diplomacy efforts, the film’s emphasis on the relationship may, at times, feel like a frivolous exploration. It may even seem that the project of telling Sergio’s story would be better suited to a documentary that focuses more closely on his UN experiences. That documentary already exists, however, and was, in fact, created by Greg Barker back in 2009. Now, over 10 years later, it is understandable that a more personal study of the same subject matter should bring with it a different form. The liberties Barker takes in expressing Sergio’s love story allow for a deeper dive into his desires and vulnerabilities both within and beyond the context of his work. This, in turn, builds a more accessible drama – one that faces the relatable sense of complexity inherent in the interaction of two major elements of a person’s life.
The push and pull of these two worlds is accentuated in a quiet moment shared between Sergio and Carolina, when the following phrase from a Robert Frost poem is introduced: ‘All is an interminable chain of longing’. While the first half of the biopic – showcasing his UN work and powerful love for Carolina – primarily answers the question of who Sergio is, the second half turns sharply, almost unexpectedly, to the question of what he wants. I use the word unexpectedly because it seems, up until this particular scene, that Sergio has never considered the question, let alone the fact that there could be an answer. Because this does not cross Sergio’s mind, it does not cross the viewer’s until he is directly confronted with it, by none other than Carolina – the woman who has witnessed him, time and time again, want seemingly unattainable, impossible things for nations of other people. In that split second, Sergio’s life becomes that ‘chain of longing’. What he wants becomes suddenly dependent on his being able to break free from his professional obligations by fulfilling them and getting out – an intention that the audience knows can never be realized.
Although Sergio struggles with committing to one particular thematic direction, it provides a multidimensional understanding of the trials Sergio de Mello endured, the moments he found beautiful, and the most significant memories (and sometimes regrets) that influenced him. There is a place for this particular telling of Sergio’s life, and it is one that does not merely seek to idolize his triumphs, but to reinforce his legacy as a good man.
If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in the following past FOLCS events:
Camp X-Ray: Screening and Conversation featuring actress, Kristen Stewart, and director, Peter Sattler.
Eye in the Sky: Screening and Conversation featuring director, Gavin Hood.