Sergio (movie review)

You are probably too immersed in debates around the aid industry when you notice during the end credits that Jordan and Thailand, two favorite R’n’R places of the industry and its aid workers, replaced Iraq and East Timor, the central stages for Netflix’ new Sergio movie.

I am generally a big fan of using different artistic formats to communicate ‘development’, including humanitarian work and international politics, and after watching the trailer I was prepared to cut the movie some slack in terms of what to expect in terms of critical, even educational value.

With that and my first book review I wrote on the blog in 2010 on Samantha Power
s De Mello biography in mind I was still a bit disappointed with Sergio which frames his story almost completely around the romantic relationship Sergio De Mello (played by Wagner Moura) develops with his young colleague Carolina Larriera (played by Ana De Armas).
Ever since the notorious book Emergency Sex came out and in today’s world of social media, memes and aid worker humor, we already know that field romance usually does not happen between well-exercised people in airy governor’s mansions where women get to wear the nicest dresses and men prepare romantic get-aways in the countryside.
But who would want to spoil the idea that working for the UN does rarely include kisses on Brazilian or Timorese beaches and more often slightly drunken encounters in a small bedroom in the guesthouse…

I agree with Asher Luberto
’s review on LA Weekly that we learn almost nothing about Sergio other than him being the good guy, a principled, independent, courageous UN leader who can effortlessly switch between English, Portuguese, Spanish and French when communicating with his international staff.
(Movie director) Barker’s approach offers too much of a good thing in some ways. The film has all the depth of a family photo album. Sergio, lying in rubble, recalls his most cherished memories before passing as two military servicemen (played by Garret Dillanhunt and Will Dalton) try to dig him out of heaps of concrete. From here, we flashback to Sergio’s beginnings as if in a superhero origin story.
Still on a high from the success story of being the midwife to the world’s newest country in the 21st century, he embarks on the ill-fated mission to save Iraq from Americans and facilitate a bottom-up democratic transition. Sending the snipers at the entrance of the UN compound home and ruffling feathers with Paul Bremer and American leadership in the US seems like a good way of branding the UN in post-war Baghdad.
When a truck bomb brings down the UN headquarters, killing at least 22 people, we have arrived in the 21st century of asymmetric warfare, targeting international organizations and unpunished war crimes against civilian and their infrastructure.

The movie has some strong moments when Sergio visits a microfinance project in East Timor (we all believed it was the next big thing back then...) and a village elder upon learning that he is an international diplomat remarks: “Tell the world to see us as we are” and Sergio seems genuinely interested and caring about her fate.
And when he explains to Carolina in New York that “my work is in the field” we have a small chance to reflect on the price of fieldwork, including a broken marriage and missing out on seeing your children growing up.
“I guess I’m not good at indefinite assignments”, he remarks about his relationship with his estranged family and that line is quite catchy when it comes to UN transition work and personal commitments in the field.

The movie does not attempt to be close to reality as Wagner Moura’s Pablo Escobar in Narcos was and we never get any real insights into international diplomacy and bureaucracy-although I had to smile when Sergio asked his team in Baghdad whether they brought the templates from Cambodia and East Timor.
His loyal advisor (Sergio calls him his “conscious”) and international refugee expert Gil Loescher is a composite character made of several senior UN officials as the end credits acknowledge and it gives the impression of a “dream team” that travels around the hotspots of the world and brokers peace when the reality of UN HR is slightly different and not as personality-driven anymore (?).
Or perhaps there is a need for them engaging with Syria, Yemen and other humanitarian hotspots nowadays?

In the end, this is not the kind of movie I need to arrange a special screening for our students-it is a Netflix movie that will provide close to two hours of global diplomacy escapism and plenty of food for reflections and the odd snarky comment when you watch it in the guesthouse or with friends during lockdown in Geneva or New York…and if you really want to engage properly with Sergio De Mello there is always Power
s memoir and the 2009 documentary which Hannah Shaw-Williams compares en detail to the movie for ScreenRant.

P.S.:
Dali ten Hove wrote a much more comprehensive review, Sergio, Legendary UN Troubleshooter, Gets His Own Hollywood Biopic, for the excellent PassBlue site!

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