Danish documentarian, journalist, and provocateur Mads Brügger makes films that earn him comparisons to Borat for their stunt-like setups, but where Sacha Baron Cohen uses his big-screen characters to prod at American prejudices and sensibilities, Brügger goes abroad to more uncertain territory. In 2009’s troubling, darkly hilarious Red Chapel, he and two Korean-Danish confederates pretend to be a theater troupe in order to be allowed to travel to and perform (terribly) in North Korea. And in The Ambassador, he ponies up for a diplomatic passport—apparently they can be purchased for a few hundred thousand from one of the less scrupulous and more cash-hungry African regimes—and heads to the Central African Republic as the new Liberian consul to see about becoming a blood-diamond smuggler.
The Ambassador, which was produced by Lars von Trier’s Zentropa production company, deserves serious points for boldness, though not cohesiveness. As an exploration of how widespread corruption is on the continent, it’s less damning than despairing. The CAR is so mired in individual interests, the way constantly needing to be smoothed by “envelopes of happiness,” as Brügger nicknames his bribes, that the idea of any kind of national improvement seems exhaustingly out of reach. It’s not just that people can purchase diplomatic immunity—even that turns out to be a convoluted process of graft and misinformation—so much as that people can buy anything, so long as they’re prepared to be ripped off whenever possible.
In light of how dire the CAR’s straits appear to be, Brügger’s prankish bits—when in character, he likes to wear colonial-style riding boots, smoke using a cigarette holder, and talk about how little he likes the Chinese—look pallid next to the reality of the world around him and the fact that one of his CAR government interviewees (recorded secretly) gets assassinated. The film does have amusing moments; after Brügger expresses interest in having a Pygmy work for him, a pair from a local tribe are delivered, and they impassively follow him around. But the film’s tone and structure seem a little strained by the danger in which the filmmaker increasingly puts himself, and the indifference to human life exuded by some of those he meets. By the end, Brügger himself seems to be having trouble finding any of this funny.