Movie Review: “The Translator” carries guilt with him when he returns to his native Syria

“The Translator” has made a nice life for himself in Australia, using his multi-lingual skills for government entities and journalists, married and, since he’s from Syria, relieved to have escaped a past of justifiable paranoia and danger.

But when the Arab Spring breaks out in his home country, a journalist pal urges Sami Najjar to join him in covering it. Sami finds himself facing that past, still wracked by the guilt over how he got out and those he left behind. To them, he is a “hider,” someone who has never taken a stand, always “hiding behind the words of others.”

Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf’s gripping, engrossing film is part thriller, part history lesson and somewhat melodramatic as it takes us into the secrets of Sami’s past, the fraught situation he finds himself in back in Syria and the blend of gratitude, relief and resentment he faces from the family and friends he reconnects with there.

Because we’ve seen snippets of what Sami and Syria went through in childhood, a 1980 outbreak of protests against the Syrian dictatorship. He saw his father dragged off, never to be seen again. He say his slightly-older brother Zaid fight to free him while Sami stood terrified.

And we have an idea of how the adult Sami ended up in Australia. Something happened during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, an athlete questioned about Syria’s abrupt decision to decree that the son of the former dictator take over after the death of his father, a “translation” that made Sami persona non grata back home.

Ziad Bakri gives us a Sami who considers his words and actions with care, but who is conflicted about what he left behind and what he owes the friends and family in Damascus. He has a new life and a lawyer-wife (Miranda Tapsell). They’re looking at houses.

And this journalist friend and sponsor (David Field), the man he appears to owe much of this new life to, is showing him video of the Arab Spring (2011), which has spread from Tunisia to Egypt and now Syria.

“It’s my job to verify,” Chase says. And Sami reluctantly agrees to accompany his friend, to risk slipping across the border from Lebanon to document the popular uprising against a dictatorship that is all most of those there, young and old, have ever known. Sami also figures he might be able to help his brother Zaid, now an activist who has disappeared into government custody.

But when violent events on the ground put Sami on his own, he must rely on his brother’s ophthalmologist wife, Karma (Yumna Marwan), a defiant woman who can’t always hide her contempt for him. He must hide with his sister, LouLou (Sawsan Arshid), who caresses his Australian passport as if it’s the Holy Grail. And Sami must face everything that happened to get him out, and all the guilt he still feels about being the “hider” Karma and others label him.

“The Translator” never fails to hold our interest as we’re taken into street protests, witnessing what appears to be Sami’s growing sense of responsibility in the face of futility. The “international community” was reluctant to act against a heavily-armed, Russian-backed dictatorship. Sami is no journalist, but he’s been around it long enough to see ways he can help.

The story’s “secrets” are concealed somewhat clumsily, and that coupled with a sea of unfamiliar faces and character names — Syrian and Australian — can leave the viewer unmoored, a little lost.

Wait, what did I miss?

And the film’s climax is nothing if not high stakes melodrama. Every major figure from Sami’s childhood will return to help or haunt him, every misstep he took to find sanctuary in Australia will come back to slap him in the face.

But “The Translator” delivers a fascinating new take on the immigrant experience, reminding us that the faceless masses flocking from east, south and Middle East to this or that Western shore aren’t coming on a whim. There’s persecution, life-and-death danger in speaking out and staying, and the risks are just as great for those who flee.

When Karma cynically predicts the future, we’re reminded of how rare it is for dictatorships to fall in popular uprisings. Places like North Korea and Syria, Russia and China, may never be free, because Karma reminds us, “violence will always win.”

Rating: unrated, violence

Cast: Ziad Bakri, Yumna Marwan, David Field, Sawsan Arshid and Miranda Tapsell

Credits: Directed by Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf, scripted by Magali Negroni. A Launch release.

Running time: 1:45

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.