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After her sister goes missing, Spanish film Sara’s Notebook follows Laura Alonso (Belén Rueda), who departs on a perilous search into the Democratic Republic of Congo. Laura’s relentless mission becomes entangled with the country’s inner turmoil, where warring factions compete for minerals worth an estimated $24 trillion, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Brutality, fleeting peace, village raids, and homicide become commonplace as Laura travels deeper into the most war-torn part of Congo, Goma.
While the introduction of Congo’s minerals seems like it might lead to a larger sociopolitical discussion of the global interest in Africa’s natural resources that have caused much of the continent’s inner conflict, the story never takes a turn in that direction. Instead, the main premise of Sara’s Notebook is a story of family and survival. It is in the same vein of other African-set Western films like Hotel Rwanda and The Last King of Scotland that employ a humanistic lens to relate the struggle of people trying to turn bad into good.
On her journey, Laura is joined by Jamir (Iván Mendes), a young man haunted by his past as a former child soldier. Receiving little help from the U.N., he struggles to move on.
Their journey is marked by harrowing, near-death experiences that chip away at Laura’s mind and spirit while Jamir struggles to not be pulled back into a life of violence. Lives are expendable and power is a temporary protection; morality is fickle and often bought.
Laura represents a sense of unwavering hope and naivety that persists even in the face of adversity, although her perspective does mature. Everybody else embraces the darkness and deprived reality.
Sara’s Notebook feels like a spiritual successor to Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation. In it a young boy’s innocence is lost after he is forced into a militia group, leaving him with scars he will live with for the rest of his life, whereas Laura leaves behind her life in Spain, gaining her own set of scars on this self-imposed journey that changes her.
It would be foolhardy to solely focus on Laura’s plight and final goal with all of the other pressing issues happening in the background, and indeed the smaller details make the story more invoking while raising the stakes. Clocking in at nearly two hours in length, the hardest part of making it through the film is sitting through its gruesome shots of the war. Sara’s Notebook proves an impactful social drama that doesn’t gloss over the reality of navigating a country in political turmoil, serving as an empathetic tale on the darker side of human nature.
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Danielle Ransom is a journalist who has worked as a researcher for CNN, NBC's KXAN-TV, CBS' KEYE-TV.