Danish journalist Mads Brügger wants us to know that the governments of impoverished African countries are hopelessly corrupt — I know, breaking news, right? — and that with the proper amount of money, greed, and confidence, anyone can waltz into town, set himself up as a diplomat, and walk out with a briefcase full of blood diamonds.
That’s the theory, anyway, and there’s no reason to doubt it. But “The Ambassador,” in which the rangy, uninhibited Brügger arrives in the Central African Republic posing as a shady businessman named Cortzen, doesn’t go according to plan. The results play like a Morgan Spurlock movie hijacked by Graham Greene, and they’re never quite as funny as the director thinks.
The movie’s most shocking revelation is that a black market exists in Europe to sell fraudulent African diplomatic credentials to anyone with ready cash. Brügger secretly films his meetings with a former British Royal Marine and a Dutchman, each of whom claims he can set Mr. Cortzen up as an attaché from the backwater of his choice. He signs up with the latter and arrives in Bangui, the capital of the C.A.R., claiming to be the Liberian ambassador to the country. One catch: His papers have yet to arrive, a fact that grows more ominous over the course of the film.
An obnoxious white European as an African diplomat? Why not, since everyone in the various ministries is already gaming the system? Power comes from whom you know; the higher up the connection, the more juice you have. Cortzen is ostensibly a businessman looking to set up a match factory in the C.A.R. — in one of the more baroque curlicues, he claims he’ll hire only pygmy workers — but it’s no secret that his real purpose is to trade cash for diamonds and get out of town.
Brügger’s aim in “The Ambassador” is to open our eyes to the frank lawlessness of many African countries and the rapaciousness with which elected and appointed officials join with mercenary outsiders to loot what they can. It quickly becomes clear, though, that both the filmmaker and his sleazy alter ego are outmatched by the locals. He struggles to sign a mining contract with a fixer named Gilbert, who takes his 10 million francs and tacks on another 5 million just for kicks, possibly cutting Brügger’s own lawyer in on the deal.
There are some moments of fine farce in “The Ambassador” — Brügger finally takes delivery of his diamonds and drops them on the carpet, like Woody Allen with the cocaine in “Annie Hall.” But the movie’s undercurrent of dread is captured most eerily by a secretly filmed interview with the C.A.R.’s head of state security, a hulking French mercenary who knows where all the bodies are buried — and who becomes one himself before the end credits.
What’s missing from “The Ambassador” is any sense of whom Brügger is doing this for. Aside from those pygmies, the people of the Central African Republic go unseen. If we’re meant to be shocked by the ease with which a foreigner can buy a title and traffic in illegal diamonds — well, he doesn’t get away with it. What begins as a larkish exposé becomes a bumptious, tentative comedy about an idiot abroad. The joke’s on everyone, including the audience.