“Un Traductor” (“A Translator”)
Cuba and Chernobyl
“Un Traductor” focuses on what happened after the catastrophic accident at the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl nuclear plant. Cuba opened its medical facilities to many of the Russian patients suffering from radiation-related diseases. This is the first feature film by sibling directors Rodrigo and Sebastián Barriuso. It explores this life-and-death diplomacy through one man’s unlikely and government-mandated participation in it. Malin (Rodrigo Santoro) is a professor of Russian literature who’s ordered out of the classroom and into the hospital to serve as a translator between medical staff and patients.
While much of the film centers on desperately ill children, the film, it avoids the maudlin and we see the restraint mirroring the protagonist’s closely guarded emotions. The drama begins in 1989, three years after the Chernobyl explosion and in the early days of the Cuban program that went on to treat more than 20,000 patients over a 20-year period. The film segues smoothly from news footage of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Cuban visit to scenes that place Malin and his young son, Javi (Jorge Carlos Perez Herrera), among the Havana residents lining the streets for a glimpse of the Soviet leader.
Soon after, Malin’s home life with the boy and his artist wife, Isona (Yoandra Suárez), is disrupted by an assignment that arrives without the slightest warning or explanation. Russian Department classes were suspended, Malin and his university colleagues report, as instructed, to a hospital (one that has been turned into a facility dedicated to treating Chernobyl patients, and where the professors’ language skills are necessary crucial). After the traumatic initiation of having to tell a young mother that there’s no hope for her daughter, Malin tries to get out of his night-shift duties in the children’s ward. Malin puts aside his thesis and lessons on Gogol to research leukemia and becomes involved with all the kids on the ward, particularly a boy of about 10, Alexi (Nikita Semenov), who lies in isolation because of his compromised immune system. Malin is sympathetic to Alexi’s watchful father, a high school teacher (Genadijs Dolganovs). In one of the film’s most affecting exchanges, the man recalls with bitter sorrow how honored he felt to be transferred to Pripyat, the town where Chernobyl stood, to teach the children of esteemed scientists.
Malin’s intimate workplace bond with Argentine nurse Gladys (Maricel Alvarez) gives the film its heart and soul. Álvarez gives us an unforced blend of common sense and passion. Having escaped her native country’s dictatorship, Gladys is a proud participant in Cuba’s medical system, and a believer in its larger vision; she characterizes Fidel’s program for Chernobyl patients as “an act of kindness by a leader with a big heart.” Such praise flows organically and Gladys’ gaze says everything that needs saying.
Everything we see stands in contrast to Malin’s son who s healthy and pampered. The family is also influential and affluent. As a character, Malin is taciturn and emotionally opaque and Santoro delivers an understated performance that conveys Malin’s physical and mental exhaustion along with his deepening engagement in the work he is doing without having been asked. It is through this wok that we see the day-to-day effects of the breakup of the Soviet Union on Cubans. Economic strains and shortages of goods exacerbating the simmering conflict between Malin and Isona.
The most gripping scenes take place at the hospital. Malin is experiencing matters of such urgency that anything else pales in comparison to the point where he dismisses Isona’s work as “just art.” It is only when she sees drawings by the hospitalized children that she understands the depth of her husband’s work with them.
Shot in Havana, the film captures the distinctive time-capsule quality of an isolated country, where many aspects of the story’s 1989–90 setting bear the mark of earlier decades.
The Barriusos’ film addresses a specific set of events, but as it unfolds at the intersection of socialist ideals, economic realities and personal ambitions, it’s a timeless portrait of what it means to be a cog in the wheel of a single-party regime. Whether Malin’s life was enriched or destroyed by his assignment was never part of the greater equation.
Rodrigo and Sebastián Barriuso are not only brothers but they’re also the sons of the protagonist of the film. It takes place in the critical year of 1989, when the world was starting to change to how it looks right now in terms of political factions and events to come. Cuba had to deal with the fervor of communism and revolution and freedom from capitalism.
The film moves forward with the internal conflict of Malin as he finds himself constantly saying to parents that their children might not survive and the hours that he has to work at night without enough time to be with his son. We see him trying to quit, to find a way to cope with the inherently depressing ambience of the hospital, and thus he finds a way to translate popular Cuban short stories to Russian so he does a story time at the hospital every night, or he makes activities for the children to tell or draw their tales. All this is happening while the Berlin wall falls and the support of the Soviets diminishes, but it’s only through the strength of the Cubans that they are capable of moving their project forward.
The film becomes a bit too dramatic when it tries to equate the efforts of Malin with the wants of his family, who need him just as much as the children who are sick. The film beautifully portrays the coldness of the hospital and manages to find warmth in the white faces of the Russian children that are suffering. You just might shed tears as the film approaches its end but it manages to cause us to do so in a way that makes it worth it.