“I don’t want to set the world on fire. I just want to start a flame in your heart.” Thus goes the opening lines of “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” by the Ink Spots, a song that plays as the titular suit of Mads Brügger’s The Ambassador makes his way through Bengui, a hot spot in the Central African Republic (CAR). To be perfectly honest, to call Brügger’s character, who the director himself plays, an ambassador is a half-truth, as the film follows the exploits of the filmmaker and journalist as he attempts to get crucial documents to certify that he’s a respectable diplomat, the consul of Liberia no less. It isn’t a stretch to conclude that Brügger takes the Ink Spots’ lyrics as his mission statement, though it’s hard to imagine he did so with his eye on the same ends as the group’s heavenly tenors.
Following his calmly critical exploits in North Korea, which were documented in 2010’s The Red Chapel, Brügger finds almost everything any investigative documentarian would want in an expose in the CAR. Attempting at once to build a match factory (itself named Le Ambassadeur) in Bengui and broker a deal to become partners with a local, deeply corrupt diamond mine owner, Brügger’s biggest dealings are in paperwork—signatures and contracts—from British documentation specialists, ministers, secretaries, and other various cabinet members of various CAR governments, presidents, and a seemingly endless litany of middlemen. Employing a number of hidden cameras and an imagined persona that owes more to Graham Greene than Sacha Baron Cohen, Brügger successfully documents a country that, bereft of any sort of caring central democracy, has become a bazaar for murderers, militants, thieves, and power brokers on both sides of the economic spectrum.
Brügger, who also goes by the alias Mr. Cortzen throughout the movie, is never compelled to push the absurdity of his endeavor back in anyone’s face the way Cohen’s fearless subversive antics do, but he gets plenty of punches in by playing along. He’s moved to remind both his handler, a local named Paul, and his future business partner, upon the opening of a celebratory bottle of Moet, that it was the last thing Hitler tasted before he died, prompting Paul to pronounce, “Hitler is funny.” In fact, Paul is an even more fascinating figure in the film than Brügger, constantly reassuring his boss that his jokes are funny, that he’s fitting in, and, toward the end, that he’s not getting taken advantage of. Paul is also the first to passive-aggressively attempt to coerce Brügger into signing a ludicrous contract with the diamond mine owner and to suggest that he make his assistant carry pouches of highly illegal blood diamonds.
Still, nothing is pointedly outlandish in The Ambassador, a fact that represents its triumphs and burdens. Brügger offers no full sense of context as to why, say, the title of diplomat allows for such unfettered, indulgent privilege or, for that matter, how governments choose those to receive such appointments. Simply put, there’s no fire in Brügger’s belly, or at least any perceivable fire. It tempers the politics down, for better or worse, and makes The Ambassador more of a lopsided, if irrefutably involving, act of gonzo reportage, part absurdist how-to guide on becoming a diamond smuggler, part outsider tour of a truly lawless land infested with poverty and incessant corruption. But despite the anarchic power struggles, the CAR’s tremendously uneven and devastating social structure and the no-end-in-sight violence that rules the CAR, it’s worth pointing out that one thing continues to shake even the most crazed opportunists in the Republic. Upon a rare, extremely dangerous visit to a diamond mine, Brügger’s would-be partner gets madly nervous when one of his wives, a “lucky” wife by tradition and lineage, is brought out to the car. “Not in front of the white man,” the diamond mine owner insists, completely aware of the most necessary component of any successful corrupt business.