Having only made documentary features until now, director Greg Barker makes his narrative film debut with Sergio. Barker, who also made the 2009 HBO documentary of the same name, retells the last few years in the life of U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights, Sergio de Mello. It’s a true story that, by nature, calls for a feature film adaptation.
Clearly Barker is infatuated with the life of de Mello, but unfortunately he fails to prove himself a skilled enough filmmaker to do the man’s story justice. Its the lack of storytelling heft that ultimately kneecaps Sergio from reaching greater heights, although its stars are certainly game.
The film opens with Sergio, Wagner Moura (Netflix’s Narcos), awoken in the aftermath of a Hotel bombing in Baghdad, leaving him trapped under debris. With little hope of rescue, he begins to reflect on his life and more importantly, his time with the woman he loves, Carolina (Ana de Armas). Armas — hot off her Golden Globe nominated performance in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out — continues her radiant screen presence with her portrayal of Sergio’s colleague and lover. She and Moura have impeccable chemistry with one another that often elevates Sergio‘s routine plotting.
Wagner Moura makes a strong impression as the titular diplomat. He more than carries the films share of formulaic political thrills, but its truly when he is paired with Armas, that the film nearly reaches is highest potential.
Greg Barker knows and understands his films subject through and through. The films portrayal of Sergio initially shows him as an actual saint, he seemed too-good-to-be-true, much to the chagrin of his colleagues; always looking out for the less fortunate and more engrossed with helping those in need than anything surrounding him. However, Sergio was still a flawed human, something the film captures quite effectively. Barker certainly has the depth to continue to a career in humanist filmmaking, but his ability to tell a compelling story is in desperate need of work.
The script, written by Craig Borten (Dallas Buyers Club), presents an unoriginal framing device, one that doesn’t stick the emotional landing it strives for. For much of the films first two acts, the unfocused narrative meanders from plot threads in different time frames, with seemingly little importance. The film does get better as it goes along once we reach the third act where the love story between Sergio and Carolina begins to fully blossom. With Moura and Armas sharing an on-screen chemistry reminiscent of classic Hollywood, Sergio finally, if too briefly, shows us of the film it could’ve been.
Sergio makes an effective case of why the life of Sergio de Mello should be adapted to screen and even with its captivating stars, but director Greg Barker doesn’t prove he capable enough to be the person to adapt it into a feature film. It’s call for peace rings more true now than ever, but its resonance is lost amidst a meandering narrative.