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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Review: The Year My Parents Went On Vacation (2006)

* * *

Director: Cao Hamburger
Starring: Michel Joelsas, Germano Haiut

In approaching Cao Hamburger’s The Year My Parents Went On Vacation I find myself in kind of an odd state of mind. I enjoyed the film and would recommend it but at the same time I found it entirely generic and doubt that, a year from now, anything about it will have stuck with me. There’s nothing about the film that’s bad – there’s just nothing about it that’s at all surprising or that would make it stand out amongst other coming of age stories.

The story takes place in Brazil in 1970 when the World Cup is just around the corner and on everyone’s mind, particularly that of young Mauro (Michel Joelsas). His parents have greater concerns which stem from their political activities, but do what they can to shield their son from knowing this. Feeling the heat they decide to lie low for a bit, leaving their son with his grandfather and reminding him to tell anyone who asks that they’re “on vacation.” They drop the boy off and leave, not realizing that since contacting the grandfather he’s suffered a heart attack and died. Mauro waits patiently outside his grandfather's door until finally Schlomo (Germano Haiut), the next door neighbour, comes home and takes him in.

The two don’t live together easily and Mauro spends as much time in his grandfather’s empty apartment as he does with Schlomo. He makes friends with Hanna (Daniela Piepszyk), a girl about his age who lives in the building and makes money by letting neighbourhood boys into the backroom of her mother’s store, where they can spy on women trying on clothes in the change rooms. The woman they all want to see is Irene (Liliana Castro), who works at a cafe and dates a soccer goalie who rides a motorcycle and becomes, quite naturally, a hero to Mauro. A lot of what happens is pretty much standard for coming of age stories, though most of it is nevertheless quite charming as seen here. The political situation encroaches on the story every once in a while but, since it’s seen through the eyes of a child who doesn’t quite grasp the reality of what’s going on around him, it is never fully or deeply explored. Of greatest concern to the characters in the film is the outcome of the World Cup and the performance of the legendary Pele so that while political subversives are being rounded up in the streets, most people instead have their eyes glued to the match on the television.

On a superficial level, the film is fairly successful. It works hard at capturing the mood of a neighborhood during a time of political uncertainty and cultural triumph, its protagonist stuck squarely in the middle. The actions of the dictatorship are no secret; when the police round people up it isn't in the middle of the night, but in broad daylight. No one talks about it because, of course, talking about it might result in getting shoved into the back of a car and taken to parts unknown. The World Cup, aside from being a moment of national pride, is also a welcome distraction, something that can be looked at and talked about during a time when wilful blindness and silence seems to rule. At the same time, between these two major events, life goes on as usual: Mauro's grandfather has died, the local kids play their games, Irene hops on the back of her boyfriend's motorcycle, and Mauro dreams of Irene while ignoring Hanna. There's a good rhythm to the day-to-day stuff, punctuated every so often by a soccer game or the tense political situation.

The problem with the film, as far as I can see, is that it offers a sketch rather than a picture. It skims over the surface of the larger polticial situation, not allowing it to become part of the bigger story because Mauro doesn't quite understand the importance of events around him. That is, of course, a perfectly valid way to tell a story but it also makes it feel as if its lacking - there's no meat on the bones, nothing to really hold on to to ensure that the film attains longevity in your mind. As I said at the beginning, this is a good movie but I doubt that a year from now I'll be able to remember much, if anything, about it.

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