Sensitive, delicate and involving, “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation” is a silky-smooth dramedy about a boy thrust into the alien environment of a Jewish community when his politicized parents are forced to flee the country. The opposite of jagged, cutting-edge Brazilian cinema, this second feature by Cao Hamburger revolves around the 1970 soccer championship and a Jewish setting that recalls Daniel Burman’s “Lost Embrace,” the Argentine sleeper that took home a Berlin Silver Bear in 2004. Box office-friendly, intelligent pic is a gentle, balanced crowd-pleaser that could potentially do very well with urban auds.
Hamburger’s first film, “Castelo Ra-Tim-Bum, the Movie” was a spinoff of his TV children’s programs. Here he makes a quiet shift toward the adult theme of an innocent caught up in a ferociously repressive dictatorship without being aware of what’s happening.
For Mauro (Michel Joelsas), 1970 is the year Brazil wins the World Cup and, incidentally, the year his young parents (Simone Spaladore and Eduardo Moreira) tensely drop him off at grandpa’s house on the outskirts of Sao Paulo. Unbeknownst to the fleeing pair, the elderly man (Paulo Autran) has just had a heart attack hours before Mauro knocks on his door, setting in motion the film’s first act of “Home Alone”-type misunderstandings.
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Whisked to the funeral by Yiddish-speaking strangers, Mauro is reluctantly taken under the wing of his grandfather’s next-door neighbor, Shlomo (Germano Haiut). Though nonplussed to find Mauro isn’t circumcised (his mother is a Gentile), the community amiably adopts the boy while Shlomo courageously tries to find out why his parents are not calling.
The humorous central part of the screenplay is bereft of surprises, as Mauro is befriended by tomboyish, street-smart Hanna (a finely cast Daniela Piepszyk), who sells the local kids peeks at ladies trying on clothes in her mother’s dressing room. Mauro develops a crush on pretty Irene (Liliana Castro), who waits tables in the local bar where everyone gathers to watch Pele and Tostao fight their way to victory during the World Cup championship.
In the tragic but understated ending, the theme of memory as something slightly unreal comes to the fore. Spare offscreen narration by an older Mauro looks back on this momentous period of his life, where real emotions turn hazy in comparison to the indelible black-and-white images of the World Cup and the streets littered with confetti. Family tragedies overlap with the collective frenzy of sports matches, while the horrors of the dictatorship pass practically unnoticed.
Hamburger feels no need (nor is there any) to underline the obvious. He has a magician’s ability to keep the story light and believable, aided by a top-flight cast. In the central role, wide-eyed Joelsas adapts to his new habitat first blithely, then with growing longing for his missing parents. Playing Lucy to his Charlie Brown, Piepszyk lights up every scene she’s in.
On the adult side, Haiut is the soul of dignity and resignation as the emotionally blocked but upright Shlomo who struggles to help the little stranger whom, the rabbi tells him, has been left on his doorstep by God.
Film’s pleasing look comes courtesy of cinematographer Adriano Goldman’s tenuous lighting and art director Cassio Amarante’s nostalgic re-creation of 1970 on the outskirts of Sao Paulo. Daniel Rezende opts for strong elliptical editing that keeps audience involvement high, while Beto Villares’ soft, understated score never disturbs.