We know that when Iraq's then-president Saddam Hussein was captured by the U.S., the country had to reconcile with the chaotic aftermath. Iraq had been under corrupt leadership for more than 20 years, and with American troops occupying a country without governmental structure, citizens experienced violent turmoil. But a largely untold narrative is that, shortly after the fall of Hussein in 2003, a Brazilian United Nations diplomat, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was sent on assignment to bring peace, negotiations, and legal elections to Iraq. Netflix’s newest biopic, Sergio, brings the real Sergio’ Vieira de Mello story to life.
While you don’t necessarily need to know the real story of Sergio to watch and enjoy the movie, it’s still fascinating nonetheless that such a badass person (portrayed by Narcos' Wagner Moura) truly existed. Especially in times like these when we need to know that people who care about the rights of human beings over political power (ahem) did (and still do) exist, Sergio gives us hope for a better world.
The real Sergio Vieira de Mello (left) was born in 1948 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He often participated in political riots in college in France, and even wrote a letter in the radical left French journal Combat that made coming back to Brazil risky. Because of this he moved to Geneva in 1969. Later, Vieira de Mello got a job with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as a French editor. When he was 23, Vieira de Mello was sent to Dhaka, in what was known as East Pakistan at the time, to work with Bengali refugees. Shortly after, Bangladesh became its own independent country.
After several other operations, Vieira de Mello proved himself to be extremely skilled at communicating with and helping citizens-at-risk and negotiating with political leaders. Vieira de Mello’s job was to basically go to war-torn, crumbling nations and help its civilian community survive through political transitions.
Vieira de Mello kept moving on up in his career, getting promoted and accepting more high-profile and dangerous missions. In 2002, Vieira de Mello became the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, and in 2003, the Secretary General assigned him to Iraq to serve as Special Representative in Baghdad for four months.
He died about three months later, on August 19, 2003. A victim of a terrorist attack, Vieira de Mello was inside the Canal Hotel when it was bombed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an al-Qaeda terrorist. He was only 55 when he died.
“I was deeply saddened to hear of Sergio Vieira de Mello’s death at the hands of terrorists in Iraq. Special Representative Vieira de Mello committed his life to advancing the cause of human rights, most recently as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. When Secretary General Annan asked him to take a leave of absence from those duties to work in Iraq, he agreed without hesitation. Just as he selflessly coordinated international efforts in East Timor and Kosovo, Mr. de Mello was helping the Iraqi people move down the path towards a democratic country governed by the rule of law. My deepest condolences go to his family and to the people of Brazil, who have lost one of their finest public servants.”
According to the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation, Vieira de Mello is survived by his wife, Annie Vieira de Mello, and their two children, Adrien and Laurent. Although in Sergio, it’s shown that Vieira de Mello had a more intimate relationship with his United Nations partner Carolina Larriera (played by Knives Out star Ana de Armas), it’s unclear if this is actually true. In a post for HuffPost, Larriera herself writes that she had a “relationship” with Vieira de Mello but it’s uncertain if she meant it in the romantic sense. In a Daily Beast article, Larriera is described as Vieira de Mello’s fiancee.
If you’re hungry to learn more about Vieira de Mello’s heroism, HBO released a documentary, also called Sergio, in 2009. The doc interviews people who closely worked with Vieira de Mello (including Larriera), which might give you a different kind of perspective than Netflix's biopic. Both Sergios highlight the brave story of a man who endlessly championed for human rights and sacrificed his own life for it.
Sergio is currently streaming on Netflix.