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D’A 2022

Review: The Volunteer

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- Structured as a drama about human beings against the system, Nely Reguera's second feature film strikes at the heart of the Western consumerist mentality

Review: The Volunteer
Carmen Machi in The Volunteer

On the surface, the need to volunteer implies altruism and a desire to help, but let's be frank, it is also a way to deal with social loneliness and atonement for first-world colonial guilt. In the unstable balance between two sides of this contemporary and growing virtue in the labour market is Nely Riguera’s The Volunteer. We had the opportunity to speak to the film’s producers in our podcast last November, and after premiering at the recent Malaga Film Festival, it has just screened in the last edition of the Barcelona Auteur Film Festival (D’A).

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At the heart of the story is Marisa (Carmen Machi), a recently retired doctor who, in an attempt to escape her meaningless routine, goes to volunteer in Greece to work with child refugees. But once she gets there, Marisa realises almost immediately that the managers of the refugee camp deem it more important to comply with the rules than to actually help. Her "bosses", representatives of the NGO, obsessed with their own importance as saviours, uphold their mission to control everything and do not allow Marisa to hug or adapt to the personal needs of the children, which is all apparently against protocol. So despite the rules, Marisa takes the initiative, especially after becoming attached to Ahmed, a boy traumatised by the disappearance of his parents, who does not speak and goes everywhere with his dog. Determined to incite change in this soulless world, Marisa embarks on a journey with Ahmed in order to adopt him. From this moment she begins her real conflict not only with the system, but also with herself.

Today's "rebels" would hardly risk their own comfortable situation, let alone be willing to sacrifice themselves. And when their comfort could be compromised, they retreat in tears, but clearly relieved. Marisa's character is an example of this, fully analysed and contradictory. Of course, she has very good intentions to love and help, but she is simply unable to do so. She turns out to be a tragic heroine, because she is the only one in her environment who at least understands her inability to be fully empathetic, a perception which her profound loneliness likely stems from. The NGO workers cannot even come close to the idea that the system exploits refugees, while in reality they owe their work and their respected social status to the appalling situation of immigrants.

The film raises many questions and in the end leaves the audience with several uncomfortable answers about Western and still colonial hypocrisy towards refugees that claims to be handling the crisis when in reality it only feigns concern, and about conformism as an established norm of behaviour in first-world societies. To convey its multidimensional message, the film relies heavily on Carmen Machi, who authentically expresses with complexity the ambiguity of her heroine, her hesitations and feelings of futility; therefore, providing a powerful image of the impasse which emotional unavailability causes in humans.

The Volunteer is a co-production between Spain and Greece, produced by Fasten Films, Bteam Prods and Homemade Films. Bendita Films Sales manages international sales.

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(Translated from Spanish by Vicky York)

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