Whether it's because he's being made to act in a language that he isn't comfortable speaking, or because he simply didn't get proper direction, Wagner Moura's performance in the new Netflix film Sergio can only be described as… strange. This is unfortunate, because the film, a biopic, depends more heavily than most on the performance of its lead actor.
You might be surprised to learn that Moura, a Brazilian, had to learn Spanish for Narcos, in which he played the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar. While the show and Moura's performance were acclaimed internationally, Colombians were miffed at his Portuguese accent. "It's like having a South American play Sherlock Holmes," I recall one person saying back then.
Watch the Sergio trailer here
As the United Nations diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, Moura speaks several languages in Sergio. In moments of turmoil he defaults to his native Portuguese, to his aide he speaks in French; he speaks Spanish in certain scenes, but mostly, he is made to speak in English. And his discomfort is palpable. In quieter scenes, especially the ones that involve Sergio's girlfriend Carolina, played by Ana de Armas, Moura is warm and relaxed. But when he is called to convey anger, or impatience, the actor appears to be possessed by the spirit of Capitao Nascimento, his iconic character from the Elite Squad movies.
Suddenly, Moura's eyes bulge out of his skull; his gravelly voice, which sounded like a soothing baritone in scenes with de Armas, begins to grate like a faulty tractor.
All of this is irritatingly distracting in a rather well-intentioned film, about a man who truly deserves a biopic. Director Greg Barker is obviously enamored by Sergio, about whom he previously made a documentary feature (also available on Netflix). In this film, Barker focuses on his deployment as a UN envoy in war-torn Iraq, after the United States had pillaged and burned the country as a part of its War on Terror. In this regard, Sergio is perhaps one of the most honest mainstream films to have been made about the US' incursions into the Middle East, since, perhaps, Paul Greengrass' Green Zone, which suggested that the weapons of mass destruction theory was a sham.
Bradley Whitford stars as Paul Bremer, President George W Bush's envoy to Iraq, with whom Sergio has many disagreements. In an early scene, he makes it clear while addressing a gaggle of reporters that the UN doesn't kowtow to the Bush administration, and that his job in Iraq is to ensure that the people aren't mistreated.
As long as the film remains focused on Sergio's achievements as a diplomat, it's engaging. But Barker, presumably overjoyed at the opportunity to revisit the character, feels compelled to squeeze in as much as possible -- which means that subplots involving Sergio's poorly parented sons and his history of success in conflict zones aren't explored fully. Had the romance not been central to the plot, I'd be tempted to write it off as an unnecessary distraction.
To add to the already convoluted nature of the film, the screenplay by Oscar-nominee Craig Borten frames the narrative almost completely in flashbacks, giving the impression that the entire film is one man's dying vision -- which could be the point.
Virtually every Hollywood film about the Iraq War has been roundly rejected at the box office. But, disguised as a Netflix movie starring Pablo Escobar and a future Bond girl, Sergio might draw audiences' attention to a very controversial time in modern history.