The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (2007) dir. Cao Hamburger
Starring: Michel Joelsas, Germano Haiut, Simone Spoladore, Eduardo Moreira
“The Year My Parents Went on Vacation” is a coming of age drama set in a 1970 Sao Paulo Brazil. A young boy is left by his left-wing rebellious parents in an urban tenement building for the summer during Brazil’s victorious 1970 World Cup. There’s much potential in this coming-of-age story, but much of the drama from this interesting set-up goes unrealized.
It’s 1970 Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Mauro (Michel Joelsas) is an only child to Bia and Daniel, two seemingly grounded and caring parents. It’s the summer of the World Cup and Mauro is looking forward to cheering for their team led by the great Pele. Out of the blue, their parents hastily leave their home, for what they tell Mauro is a ‘vacation.’ Instead of taking Mauro with them, they leave him in the care of his grandfather in Sao Paulo.
When Mauro discovers his grandfather has died the day before, he’s finds himself left all alone in Sao Paulo with nowhere to go. Fortunately a kind elder neighbourhood man, Schlomo, takes the boy in. For the summer Mauro is taken in by Schlomo’s Jewish-Brazilian community as one of their own. Mauro attends Jewish ceremonies, plays soccer with the local kids and experiences many those cherished moments of childhood discovery in his adopted community.
The strength and weakness of the film is Mauro’s point of view. There’s an innate sense of dread which runs under the opening of the film. We sense there is something wrong with Bia and Daniel and that they are hiding some danger from the young boy. We’re never told explicitly why they are forced to leave, but since we’re adults watching the film, it’s obvious they are political dissidents on the run from the police. And so we enter an unknown world seen through the eyes of an innocent young boy. It’s a teasing intro.
Director Cao Hamburger employs a trendy realist style – grainy and handheld and employing almost exclusively mid to long lens sizes - which looks and feels like the work of the Dardennes Bros ("L'Enfant", "Le Fils").
Unfortunately, the final product is lacking the emotional drama of the Dardennes. Once Mauro is taken in by Schlomo and his community we forget about Mauro’s parents, and the fear of the situation leaves quite quickly. The film then moves into a familiar coming-of-age story which is considerably undramatic compared to the opening. Lead actor Michel Joelsas is capable as Mauro – he’s quiet but doesn’t quite connect to the audience in a warm paternal/maternal way. Perhaps this is because he is an inactive protagonist, a child to accepts everything that happens to him, with little complaint or even concern. In fact his chief concern is recovering his homemade toy goalkeepers for his table-top soccer game, which, of course, is meant as irony, but everything else Mauro is feeling is directed elsewhere.
The film might score with audiences who connect with the odd couple relationship of an elderly Rabbi and a goy kid. There’s some humourous interactions as they learn to live with each other in his small apartment, specifically a fun sequence where Schlomo discovers Mauro's a goy when he see his uncircumcised 'pee-pee' peeing in a flower pot. The two eventually find common ground in soccer and celebrate and dance together when their team wins their games.
A good comparison film could be “Under the Same Moon” (La Misma Luna) – a wonderful Mexican film about a young boy who ventures out on his own to find his mother. The childhood protag Carlito goes through numerous dramatic adventures before reuniting with his mother. Though it’s more Hollywood than realism, it’s more cinematic and engrossing. Even the Dardennes know how to inject cinematic story twists and turns to hook and audience.
“The Year My Parents Went On Vacation” is available on DVD from City Lights Pictures
Other related postings:
Under the Same Moon