It’s not often a Sundance premiere evokes memories of no less than “Patch Adams,” but unfortunately that comparison is hard to avoid with “Un Traductor.” Siblings Rodrigo and Sebastian Barriuso’s first feature feels maudlin and contrived, even though it’s based on their own father’s experience as a translator assisting Havana hospital staff with Ukrainian patients in a children’s ward after the Chernobyl disaster. This drama’s combination of the slick and crudely string-pulling may seem an awkward fit for Park City, but Brazilian star Rodrigo Santoro’s presence should boost its chances in the more commercial settings where it belongs.
In 1989 Malin (Santoro) is a professor of Russian literature at the University of Havana, living a comfortable life with his art-curator wife, Isona (Yoandra Suarez), and young son Javi (Jorge Carlos Perez Herrera). One day he and other department members are mysteriously relieved of their teaching duties — because, it turns out, they’re urgently needed as translators in dealing with victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, some of whom have been flown here to relieve Soviet medical resources overburdened by the crisis. (An end title notes that this program continued as late as 2011.)
Assigned a night shift in a children’s ward under supervising Nurse Gladys (Maricel Alvarez), Malin is initially appalled by this unasked-for obligation, which consists largely of telling bewildered adults that the condition of their frightened offspring is terminal. When the kid he first interacts with dies a day or two later, he angrily storms out. Still, “I quit” isn’t really an option. (Asked what authority he can plead to, Gladys snaps, “Call Fidel.”) Rallying, he’s soon holding a daily story time for the ward’s small residents, and becoming so emotionally involved that he begins seriously neglecting his own family.
The pathos of children wasting away in a medical facility far from home is so innate that “Un Traductor” only required tasteful restraint to successfully lay siege to the tear ducts. Alas, the directors and scenarist Lindsay Gossling go in the opposite direction, making every heart-tug and plot device as portentously obvious as possible. Apart from the predictably lachrymose ward sequences, Malin’s escalating conflicts with wife and son have a pat, soap-operatic feel. Additionally, the background of drastic political change (as the USSR’s demise deprives Cuba of its greatest economic support) is portrayed without any particular insight.
The film’s glossy veneer (why does humble academic Malin live in such posh digs?) further works against the raw emotions of its subject, and pacing is often slack. The performers are adequate but too often required to speechify toward one another, each occupying the indignant high moral ground without grasping that their viewpoints aren’t actually in conflict.
While one can excuse some of “Un Traductor’s” decisions as intending to ennoble the directors’ father, the film dwells overmuch on Malin’s saintly self-sacrifice, as if his suffering were somehow more profound than that of the afflicted or their families. Santoro responds with a humorless, preening performance that is not among his best.
Those who don’t mind a little — or even a lot — of by-the-numbers sentimental manipulation will probably find this a moving experience despite its flaws. For the sake of such less discriminating viewers, however, it was probably a tactical error to include the intel (among too many closing texts) that the directors’ real-life parents divorced a few years later — news that quite sours the formulaic reconciliation their dramatized counterparts have just enjoyed.