A Translator (Un traductor) is the first Cuban Oscars entry that was not directed by a Cuban citizen. Brothers Rodrigo and Sebastián Barriuso were born in Havana and shot the film in Cuba, but they are Canadian citizens. However, it is not hard to understand why it was selected by the Cuban Film Institute. It deals with a remarkable aspect of recent Cuban history that is almost unknown in the rest of the world.

The protagonist of A Translator is Malin, a professor of Russian literature, who, in his spare time, is working on a thesis about Nikolai Gogol. His wife, Isona (Yoandra Suárez), is an artist and art curator. They have a young son, and they are living a good life. The role of Malin, by the way, is played by Brazilian star Rodrigo Santoro, who once earned an MTV nomination for Best Villain in 300. One day, out of the blue, the entire Russian Literature Department of the university where Malin works is shut down, and all of the staff is ordered to report to an address with which they are not familiar. It turns out to be a hospital, where they are expected to serve as translators between medical staff and a new batch of patients: victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine.

Between 1990 and 2011, Cuba accepted and treated more than 25,000 Chernobyl victims, most of them children. Except for a 1995 article in The New York Times, this story was ignored by the West, primarily for political reasons.

Malin is assigned to the children’s ward, where he encounters dying children and their distraught parents. At first, he does not take well to this upsetting new job and asks to be transferred. Gladys, a nurse who has fled to Cuba to avoid the Argentine military dictatorship, convinces Malin to stick it out. The role of Gladys is played by Maricel Álvarez, who played the former wife of Javier Bardem’s character in Biutiful.

Working the night shift, Malin uses his research skills to learn more about the conditions from which the children are suffering. Gradually, he becomes obsessed with helping the children, reading to them in Russian, playing games with them and serving as an adult companion for boys and girls who are in great need of one.

While this is going on, Cuba faces a major crisis. Financially dependent on the Soviet Union, when the USSR collapses, aid is drastically cut back, and the Cuban economy nosedives. There is no gas for cars, and food becomes scarce. At home, Malin’s life is also falling apart. Isona is organizing a major exhibition, and she does not appreciate that Malin is no longer helping raise their son, and that she has to deal with greater domestic responsibilities just when she needs the opposite.

I saw A Translator in Hollywood as part of the excellent new series, Latin America Nomination Screenings. After the screening, the Barriuso brothers answered questions. The character of Malin is based on their father, Manuel Barriuso Andino. And Isona is based on their mother, Magda. The couple divorced and did not see each again for eleven years—when their sons produced a film about them.

For those who want to know more about Cuba’s program to help the Chernobyl victims, Cuban television produced a documentary on the subject, Cuba and Chernobyl, in 2006.