Long before the world rediscovered the catastrophe that happened in Chernobyl in 1986 through the HBO miniseries created by Craig Mazin, a Cuban-Canadian coproduction selected for the international competition at the Sundance Film Festival last year, had shed some light on the worst nuclear accident in history and its heart-wrenching aftermath. Un traductor, which marked the directing debut of brothers Rodrigo and Sebastian Barriuso, tells the story of the Cuban program to treat the children that suffered the consequences of the disaster in Ukraine. Even if the main goal of the film was to show the contradictions in the local society, it also portrayed the suffering of kids severely burned by radiation. Watched today, A Translator is a great companion piece to the HBO series, as it chronicles the fate of many of the people affected by the Chernobyl disaster.
Set in 1989, when the visit of Gorbachev to Havana preluded a program that ultimately provided 20,000 children with free medical treatment, the film, based on the real-life story of the Barriusos' father, follows the story of Malin (Rodrigo Santoro), a professor of Russian at the university who enjoys a privileged life. Everything changes for him when he is asked to report to a brand-new hospital where the first Soviet children are being treated, a place where he will become a key tool to establish communication between the Cuban doctors and the recently arrived children. The film shows how Malin's life slowly divides into two worlds. He spends time with his wife, an artist (Yoandra Suarez) and his young son (Jorge Carlos Pérez Herrera), mostly in an apartment that is luxurious compared to the places where most Cubans live. But most of his day is spent at the grim hospital, where patients have just the minimal elements to survive. There, he establishes a strong connection with an Argentine nurse (played by Maricel Álvarez, who also played the wife of Javier Bardem in Biutiful), who is a strong supporter of Fidel Castro. Malin has big doubts, and the whole experience with the Chernobyl kids is taking him towards a personal crisis in which he will question everything in his life. The big international team that helped create the movie includes Canadian screenwriter Lindsay Gossling, Chilean DP Miguel Littin-Menz and British composer Bill Laurance.
During an interview with the HFPA at the Sundance Film Festival last year, Brazilian star Santoro admitted that the challenge of having to speak in Spanish and Russian in many scenes was daunting: "I didn't know a word of Russian, and I couldn't understand why the directors chose a Brazilian actor for a role like this. But the story was really irresistible to me. I got into it so much, that I couldn't consider not participating. I used a phonetic system to speak Russian, but I spent five hours a day studying the language for a month and a half. Certainly, making A Translator was an intensive class on Cuban and Russian culture, music and literature."