Malin is a professor of Russian literature living under the Castro regime, so he ought to be well prepared to deal with tragedy. However, his specialty was quite in favor with his dictator (at least until the whole Glasnost business started), so he enjoyed perks under the corrupt system. Unfortunately, the bill will come due just before the plug is pulled on Russian aid. Assigned to translate for young victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster transported to Cuba, Malin will become overwhelmed by the enormity of their suffering, to the exclusion of nearly everyone else around him in Rodrigo & Sebastián Barriuso’s Un Traductor (a Translator), which screens during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
Malin is closely based on the Barriuso Brothers’ father Manuel Barriuso Andino and his contemporary art gallerist wife Isona is also modeled on their mother, Magda González-Mora. As the film opens, Malin and Isona do not let trifles like human rights and free expression trouble them, because they live well. It therefore comes as a rude shock when the Russian lit department is summarily closed and the faculty are assigned to serve as translators for the newly arrived Chernobyl patients. Malin really draws the short straw: night shifts in the children’s ward. He threatens to quit, but when told to “take it up with Fidel” he duly straightens up and toes the line.
Soon, Malin is leading a regular story-time. Not long after that, he starts to get deeply emotionally involved with the kids and their parents, especially young Alexi in the isolation ward and his school teacher father Vladimir. Meanwhile, with the cutting of Soviet aid, Cuban stores are now empty and Malin no longer receives gasoline vouchers—not that there is any gas left in filling stations anyway. The poor nutrition starts taking a toll on his son Javi’s health, but Malin hardly notices. He and the uber-pregnant Isona do not talk anymore, because he is so physically and emotionally exhausted.
Aside from Michael Moore, most grown adults now acknowledge the hype surrounding the Cuban medical system was really just hype. Still, it apparently beat the facilities available in both the USSR and Putin’s Russia, considering the Cuban Chernobyl program continued up through 2011. At times, the Barriusos clearly show a nostalgia for the Cuba Rodrigo never really knew. Yet, it is hard to gin up nostalgia for any of the circumstances surrounding the Chernobyl disaster.
Indeed, Un Traductor is not shy when it comes to playing on our emotions. There are an awful lot of sickly children in this film. Yet, the clear standout is Genadijs Dolganovs, who brings real dignity to the proceedings as Vladimir. His big climatic scene with Malin earns the inevitable lumps in the audience’s throats. Maricel Álvarez is also quite compelling as Gladys, the treasonous Argentine RN, who first busts Malin’s chops and then comes to respect his commitment. However, Brazilian international crossover star Rodrigo Santoro is problematically quite the cold fish as Malin and Yoandra Suárez’s Isona comes perilously close to a cliched scold.
In an enormously telling scene, Malin watches news footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall, described as a “monument to socialist workers” or some such nonsense on the Cuban state news report, with conspicuous alarm. The fact that this was a triumph for human freedom and dignity is completely lost on him, and most likely the film. The truth is East Germans, Czech, Poles, and Hungarians do not look back on subsidizing Castro’s police state with much more fondness than the midnight knocks on the door and the invading tank columns. Frankly, the degree to which their economy depended on Soviet largess proves how dysfunctional the Socialist system was and remains. Decidedly mixed, Un Traductor should not be a high priority during the limited time of the festival, but for those with an abiding interest in the Chernobyl experience, it screens again tomorrow (1/22) in Provo and Friday (1/26) and Saturday (1/27) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.