With such masterworks as De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, Doillon’s Ponette, and Majidi’s Children of Heaven, it’s become a favorite practice for foreign filmmakers to tackle stories of tremendous depth and scope from the eyes of an innocent child struggling to make sense of a changing world, political climate, economic strife and/or a threatened family dynamic. And indeed these are the types of films that manage to engage audiences regardless of age and gender who all instinctively side with our precocious hero, wanting to protect them from harm, comfort them if they’re scared and love them when they’re lonely. Instead of tales of talking animals voiced by Eddie Murphy or sarcastic brats who always manage to hit annoying adults in the crotch, consistently we find solace in these stories of heartache and compassion from around the globe. However, the frequent success and release is a double-edged sword as the works have become not just highly marketable but so expected among foreign film fans that unless the filmmakers try desperately to set themselves outside the pack of the aforementioned works in the vein of movies such as Salles’s Central Station, Dupeyron’s Monsieur Ibrahim, or Malberti’s Viva Cuba, they’re nearly guaranteed to get overlooked, lost in the shuffle of too little advertisement for foreign titles, until they’re interchangeably shelved at a local library or video store, saved only when a film fan just happens by in the mood to take a chance on an unknown offering.
While unfortunately saddled with a forgettable title and misleading trailer that seems to set it up as though it were Monsieur Ibrahim 2 or Central Station: The Return (which makes me fear for its eventual life collecting dust at Blockbuster), director Cao Hamburger’s The Year My Parents Went on Vacation is anything but forgettable. Understated, brilliant, heartrending yet surprisingly filled with warmth and charm, Year, which was chosen as the official selection by Brazil for the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 2008 Academy Awards after earning accolades from around the globe, was co-produced by City of God director Fernando Meirelles. Despite the fact that Hamburger as well as some of the cast and crew including the talented cinematographer Adriano Goldman (City of Men) have collaborated with Meirelles either on God or Men’s television and film incarnations, Hamburger’s family friendly yet welcomingly deep coming-of-age story has none of the overwhelming violence nor sense of inescapable despair of Meirelles’s masterpiece God. Yet, as in God, we’re transfixed by the plight of a young man trying to navigate through the tumultuous 1970’s in Brazil.
Set in 1970 just after the legendary soccer (or “football”) player Pele scored his 1,000th goal positioning the country to claim the World Cup, Year finds preteen Mauro (Michel Joelsas) more concerned with collecting the likenesses of his favorite players to complete his card collection and mastering the art of table soccer, than paying much attention to the effects the cold war is having on the totalitarian regime running his native Brazil. Shortly after the film begins, we find ourselves as confused as Mauro when his devoted parents Bia (Simone Spoladore) and Daniel (Eduardo Moreira), hurriedly pack up their son in their old blue VW, flee the city of Belo Horizante to head for Sao Paulo in order to leave him with his estranged paternal grandfather who resides in the tight knit Jewish suburb of Bom Retiro. Informing young Mauro that they have no choice but to go on “vacation” as we deduce that his left-leaning parents are political activists trying to outrun governmental persecution, he’s promised that they will return before the first game of the World Cup. However, after a series of unfortunate events find Mauro unable to stay with his relative, he’s left mostly to fend for himself while becoming the unofficial mascot of the community, forming an awkward alliance with his grandfather’s neighbor, the predominately Yiddish speaking, devout Shlomo (Germano Haiut) and befriending young Hanna (a terrific Daniela Piepszyk) an adorable tomboy who lives in the same building. Preoccupying himself with table soccer and obsessing about the World Cup, the lonely Mauro who’s so devoted to his parents that he remains in arm’s length of the phone for extended periods until he’s lured outside by Hanna, begins to come out of his shell, although at the same time, realizes that in the wake of political turmoil, the term “vacation” may mean something much different than he’d imagined.
Although one can make the case that there’s nothing overly innovative about using sports as a metaphor to unite a community as Pele’s heroics manage to inspire everyone in Bom Retiro, Cao Hamburger never lets the film’s subtext get lost in what could have been a contrived loss-of-innocence paradigm. And not content to solely utilize Mauro's limited, naïve look at Brazil’s political situation, Hamburger expertly explores the boy's associations with a memorable cast of characters and takes a character vignette approach that’s echoed by numerous cinematographic touches with an emphasis on a “rack focus” as the camera racks to show the reaction of any number of individuals in a scene. It's by weaving a genuine tapestry of diverse perspectives that we’re painted a much more intricate portrait of the goings-on, feeling genuinely touched, heartbroken, and enlightened by the therefore well-earned conclusions Hamburger makes as the film rolls along towards its conclusion.
One of the best films released so far in 2008, Year is much richer than one would’ve assume given the bland tone of the trailer. Featuring a phenomenally deft portrayal by its young lead who was chosen in an exhaustive six month search from one thousand auditions (IMDb) and a strong supporting cast including the underused Liliana Castro and Caio Blat as two adults who befriend young Mauro, The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, is one in a long line of quality foreign films depicting a country’s evolution from the eyes of a child. In addition it's hopefully one that--given enough positive word of mouth-- won’t land helplessly forgotten amidst a pile of “unknown” limited releases all pushed aside to make room for the latest celebrity driven blockbuster filled with gross-out gags and toilet humor pandering to the lowest common denominator for family entertainment. So pack a suitcase for the trip-- The Year My Parents Went on Vacation is a true gem and well worth the trouble of tracking down.