Of Silences and Words
Un Traductor (A Translator), 2018
The cinematic narrative in Un Traductor, is focused on a translator working in a hospital in Cuba with children who are victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. As a translator he helps to create an alternate universe to help the children escape the insanity of the reality. Bhaswati Ghosh writes an insightful review that recreates the essence of the film.
If the airport was a sign of things to come, I was in for some time travel. The walls were grimy and the long queue of people waiting to exchange currency (for this was a primarily cash-only country) took forever to move. The air felt muggy. Outside the airport, the time-warped state continued. Everything -- the Soviet-era cars on the roads, the books in bookshops, old computer accessories and outdated coding booklets -- spoke of a country locked in time by at least a couple of decades. In the wilting cabbages and limited stock at vegetable shops, on the face of a schoolteacher who was driving taxis in his spare time, over the decrepit facades of once magnificent colonial buildings, one could see how stretched the resources were. This was Havana in 2017, when I visited the city on a vacation. And yet, despite the acute scarceness of money and the dated nature of things, one saw happy faces, especially those of young boys and girls on their way to or returning from schools. Un Traductor (A Translator), a bilingual (Spanish and Russian) film directed by Rodrigo Barriuso and Sebastián Barriuso, based on their father’s real-life story, opens with such a beaming face. It’s that of little Javi’s, who stands on the roadside atop his father’s shoulders to catch a glimpse of Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet Union leader who is visiting Cuba. The year is 1989. These two years -- 1989 and 2017 -- mark two vastly different time frames -- pre-and post-Soviet Union -- in Cuba’s history that the film charts through the life of Malin, the film’s eponymous translator protagonist.
The turn Malin’s life would take almost immediately following Gorbachev’s visit would be dramatic and abrupt. From being a professor of Russian Literature at the University of Havana, he would find himself a translator-cum-interpreter at the Havana General Hospital. It is where victims of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion came for treatment as part of an agreement between Cuba and the Soviet Union, long-time allies following the Cuban Revolution of 1958 and the subsequent harsh economic embargo imposed on the island nation by the United States. The Soviet government paid for the patients’ travel and the Cuban government for their treatment. A sense of foreboding becomes palpable for Malin the moment he steps into the hospital. In a powerful scene, the light in the elevator he’s in keeps flashing off and on at a jarring pace.
A person of letters focused on getting his PhD, Malin is repulsed by the very idea of serving in a hospital. Despite his initial resistance, however, in the government controlled socialist state of Cuba, he has little choice but to acquiesce to authority and do as asked. Tasked with supporting the children’s ward, Malin’s new work situation -- sudden and sorrowful -- is similar to, but nowhere as severe as the world of the children he finds himself in. Exposed to lethal amounts of radiation, these children have to fight not only the scourge of cancer and other terminal illnesses, but also the excruciating pain the treatment for these diseases brings on. As he steps into this dark universe, Malin’s indisposition slowly morphs into a resigned acceptance, until it immerses him fully.
At home, Malin, his artist wife, Isona and their son, Javi lead a relatively affluent lifestyle -- they live in a big, airy house, wear nice clothes and have plenty to eat. Javi has a room to himself, packed with toys. Isona is passionate about her art practice and is seen to be working towards an exhibition. This contrast between Malin’s hospital (work) life and his home life is like night and day, literally, for his duty in the hospital is at nights. As the hospital’s weariness consumes Malin, the subterranean tensions in his personal life become pronounced. He’s less and less present in his roles as a husband and a father, even as his wife becomes pregnant. “Are there houses better than ours?” Javi asks his father on a rare day they’re seen taking a stroll together. “There must be,” Malin offers, which makes Javi probe if that’s the reason why Malin doesn’t sleep in the house any longer. “I do sleep in the house,” Malin says, “only, not at night.” And yet, despite this overturning of normalcy, Malin still has the opportunity to see daylight. In comparison, the children he works with at the hospital seem to be living through what can only be construed as an interminable night.
Malin’s initiation into his new role is as stark as it is unforeseen. The very first child he learns about dies, cancer getting the better of her. The worst nuclear disaster of the 20th century, the Chernobyl explosion caused cancer -- mostly of the thyroid -- in a large number of its victims. Unable to reconcile with this setting and the overwhelming weight it saddles his soul with, Malin tries, unsuccessfully, to discontinue the work. When he’s back at the hospital, he shares his displeasure with Gladys, the Argentinian nurse he’s assigned to work with, only to be told off in the sharpest of terms. The nurse tells him that she chose to come to Cuba to work because it had one of the best medical systems in the world. “But you chose to be a nurse. I didn’t choose any of this!” Malin reminds her, to which she responds, “The kids didn’t choose it either.” That one terse dialogue, carrying within it the magnitude of the tragedy the children and their families were experiencing, would be enough to change Malin’s, and the viewer’s, perspective on choice, privilege and work ethic. When visiting Alexi, a high-risk, immune-suppressed boy kept in isolation, Malin would encourage him to write down his thoughts. This -- the unspoken, the gestured and the written -- is one of the victories of this film, often creating poetry where it’s least possible. As Alexi describes his earliest encounter with the explosion, he writes of a dazzling light he first saw, before the smoke rose. “The light went inside me and then the world caved in. Now I wait in darkness, for sunlight to return. For light less beautiful.”
Un Traductor derives its power and effectiveness from a remarkably taut script. The cinematic narrative remains focused on a translator working in a hospital, even as the political atmosphere around him undergoes tectonic shifts. The Berlin Wall falls, Malin’s in-laws quote Fidel Castro, Cuba's president at the time as saying “Gorbachev is softening; he’s flirting with capitalism.” The impact of the latter would be life-altering for Cuba. Any story of modern-day Cuba is also the story of its relationship with the Soviet Union. Through the long and fraught period of the Cold War, the island nation and the Soviet block remained strong allies; exchanging Cuban sugar for Soviet fuel. Understandably, the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 hit Cuba hard. In the film, the signs of this changing world order are all too subtle -- grocery store shelves become progressively lighter, gas stations run out of fuel, banks put a limit on withdrawing one’s own savings -- in relation to the story of the Chernobyl children, which remains front and centre.
With a few simple tools he prehends from his house -- The Greatest Cuban Stories for Children; cassette tapes; a boom box and paper for the children to draw, write or make objects with -- Malin creates a parallel universe for the children at the hospital. “We’ll not travel in a vehicle, but today, I will take you out of here,” he says in one scene as he reads out a story to the kids, translating the Spanish into Russian on the spot. This story-time with kids -- Gladys’ idea -- is where the film’s narrative arc reaches the highest point of the rainbow. This is what transforms Malin from a mere translator to a magic maker, a carrier of that ordinary but sustaining light Alexi writes about in his diary.
For a job he takes up but reluctantly, his stint at the hospital soon becomes deeply personal for Malin. When Alexi asks him about the other children whom he can’t meet due to his isolation, Malin takes it upon himself to acquaint the boy with the rest of the children. Unable to find fresh paper, he rips apart his own thesis to offer the blank side of the typed pages to the children, each of whom he asks to write and draw something that defines them. On top of the page, they are made to write their names and dates of birth. Malin stitches the sheets together and names the book The Chernobyl Children, which he presents to Alexi. When Alexi dies a few days later, he holds himself responsible, shaken by guilt for having helped the kid to bed from the floor without wearing protective gear on a night when the power went off.
At its heart, Un Traductor is about silences. I use the plural here because the film explores many forms of silence. There’s the impenetrable silence of Malin’s heart -- his acute inability to express himself in words, an odd incongruity for a man whose work depends on not only using words but on rendering them in another language. There is the repressed silence that comes with the tight regulations of a controlling regime. There is the silence that Gladys and Malin share as confidants working through an irreconcilable situation. But above all, there is the overwhelming numbness of being in the midst of little people struggling through agonizing physical conditions they had no role in causing. The film uses wordless pauses, punctuated with an arresting music score by Bill Laurance to bridge the unsaid and the unsayable (“We can’t talk about God here,” Malin tells a little girl who is afraid of the divine figure, for he “takes away sick children”). For silence can still be conveyed, but numbness has no way of getting across; it can only be felt in one’s bone and skin. The film also employs The Malecón, Havana’s iconic seaside promenade known for its stunning sunsets, to great effect to carry the echo of these silences. It is where Malin comes to sit at the height of his despair, allowing the ocean to absorb and shelter his pain.
Un Traductor was Cuba’s entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards, but it was not nominated. The film has an excellent cast, led by Rodrigo Santoro in the role of Malin, who excels with his understated brilliance, perfect for what the character demands. Equally impressive is Maricel Alvarez as Gladys, a nurse with a heart and a good head on her shoulders. One can't help but mention young Nikita Semenov, who plays Alexi, as well as the entire group of children who portray the vacuity and confusion needed of their roles with astonishing maturity and tenderness.
Malin’s return to his job is as unanticipated as his deputation at the hospital had been. When his students ask him about his experience with the Chernobyl victims, he responds with cryptic brevity -- “It’s done.” The finality of those words have a haunting effect on the viewer, even as the professor talks to his class about ‘The Diary’, a work in which a man is driven to madness by the world he lives in and escapes it by creating his own reality.
One can say that is what Un Traductor is ultimately about -- a translator helping to create an alternative universe for a group of children so they can escape the insanity of the reality they find themselves in.