Think of “Sara’s Notebook” as a “Heart of Darkness” for Africa in the age of Conflict Minerals and NGOs.
Stick with me, because I’m going to run with this conceit a while.
This Spanish film, acquired by Netflix, is a companion piece to “Beasts of No Nation,” an inferior sequel in some ways, but a harrowing if slooooooow moving odyssey about a Spaniard (Belén Rueda of “The Orphanage”) who comes to Africa to find out what happened to her sister, an aid worker lost in the war-torn Congo.
That’s a classic “Heart of Darkness” quest narrative.
Laura learns a bit about younger sister Sara (Marian Álvarez) through those who knew her, and from a notebook she left behind. Something in her sister changed as she witnessed and tried to help save Africans from each other in the brutal guerilla war that’s cropped up, not over diamonds or uranium, but to control coltan, a rare mineral that the warlords hang onto but which the government and the rest of the world covets.
The movie wastes a lot of time in the opening as Laura calls her broker to sell her stock so she can hire and then fire a shifty mercenary (Manolo Cardona) who promises to get her to the region where Sara disappeared, meets Sara’s onetime boyfriend Sven (Nick Devlin) and finally Father Salvio (Enrico Lo Verso), who might be of actual help.
She boards a bush plane and gets shot at, then a boat and finally Third World buses and pickup trucks in her heedless snake-bitten pursuit of a sister she is sure, thanks to instincts, tips and her own flashbacks with Sara, is still alive.
Sara had “gone native,” so identifying with the people she was trying to help that even passing a mirror shocked her. “How white I am,” she wrote. Again, very Conrad, straight out of “Heart of Darkness.”
Laura hasn’t evolved that way. When Father Salvia persuades a sullen African teen (Iván Mendes) to escort her on this dangerous journey, she thinks nothing of making him ride in the back of a truck while she sits in the cab, of cracking “They behaved like animals” in describing Jamir’s fellow Africans, fleeing soldiers or paramilitaries, were brutalized from both sides.
Jamir is haunted, and as we hear and see accounts of child soldiers rounded up and “initiated” into this murderous world of minerals, slavery and genocide, we can guess where he’s been.
Director Norberto López Amado did the fine Spanish Civil War drama “The Time in Between,” and is most at home in the scenes of violence — raids, rampages, mass executions. But for a movie that is moving from point A deeper and deeper into the wilderness of points B, C and D, the damned picture is downright static.
There’s little urgency to the quest, and the payoff is a bit of a fizzle, too. Until, that is, you view this thing through the filter of Joseph Conrad and all the filmmakers who have made a pass through “Heart of Darkness.”
This isn’t a neat Conrad analog, but you can sense the “Darkness” bones here. Conrad and Coppola (“Apocalypse Now”) heightened the horror, waypoint by waypoint, and grasped the surreal loss of humanity that Europeans (and later the U.S. military) experience the further removed they get from civilization. Laura witnesses some of that, experiences a little of it too, but doesn’t make that same sort of personal journey.
She, unlike the Kurtz of Conrad, starts to see beyond the “this place will never change” primitive brutality of her locale. She can cling to the hope for redemption somewhere down the road.
In “Sara’s Notebook,” it’s everybody else (almost) who embraces the darkness and despairs at ever finding the light, even the aid workers and hands-off U.N. peace keepers who aren’t really helping.
As for the filmmakers, if they’d paid more attention to “Heart of Darkness” and less to “Blood Diamond,” they might have found their way out, not of the stunningly scenic jungle they were filming in, but out of the corner they painted this not-dark-enough/not-emotional-enough riff on a classic fictional quest tale into.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, graphic violence, implied rape
Running time: 1:55