The title sounds more like a “Home Alone” type comedy about the antics that ensue upon being left behind by adults in an unfamiliar place. Instead, “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation” is a telling tale about a 12-year-old boy thrown into a situation far beyond his maturity level.
The backdrop of the film is Brazil in 1970. A military dictatorship has been in power for six years, and the country is experiencing a period of unrest and repression in the form of kidnappings and assassinations. When people announce they are going on vacation, it’s usually a euphemism for something not as pleasant. Political dissenters and left-wing sympathizers such as students and artists fled the country in fear of prosecution. The volatile political situation of the country is juxtaposed with the excitement of Brazil’s participation in the World Cup against Italy.
When Mauro’s parents decide to take a vacation, they too are involved in subversive behavior, and he is left at the foot of his Jewish grandfather’s apartment building in the capital of Brazil, S?o Paulo. Although unclear when they will return, Mauro’s father assures him they will be back in time for the World Cup. He also tells his son, whose ambition is to become a goal keeper, that in soccer, everyone is allowed to make mistakes, except the goal keeper. Whether this is taken literally or figuratively, it refers to Mauro’s responsibility to himself and those around him. Throughout the film, Mauro looks longingly out the window, waiting for his parents’ blue Volkswagen Beetle to turn the corner.
The boy must grow accustomed to Jewish behavior and standards. Although Mauro is labeled a “goy” (gentile, or non-Jew) by members of the local synagogue, he eventually gets used to having fish for breakfast (because it is good for the brain) and respecting his caretaker’s rituals.
Soccer facilitates this process. Soccer plays as a character in the film, as a unifying factor among people of all colors and creeds. It is what initially ties Mauro to the other kids in the neighborhood. Through the televised World Cup games (actual footage is used in the film) everyone, Jewish, Italian, black, young and old, gathers around the tube at the local diner in anticipation of a Pel’eacute; goal. Despite the turmoil surrounding them, soccer has the power to make people forget about politics and focus on the art of the game . . . and beating the Italians.
The film is an interesting portrait of Jewish life and culture in a South American country. The members of the Jewish community speak fluent Portuguese but still converse in Yiddish. (The film is presented in the Portuguese language with English subtitles) The interactions and meshing of cultures and beliefs in this particular example of the Jewish Diaspora is unique and informative to say the least.
A particular scene in the movie best encapsulates most of the themes of the film. At a bar mitzvah, the children abandon the traditional style of dancing, and to the initial confusion of the older guests, they start doing a twist of sorts to the upbeat Brazilian music playing in the background. This particular song is a nice contrast to the overall somber and sad feeling most of the music conveys in the rest of the film.
The jig is over, however, when the children witness a brutal police raid at the nearby university, and it’s back to reality. In this one scene, we learn about the diversity and generational differences in the small population, and are once again reminded about what is going on in Brazil at the time.
This is best conveyed by the impressive and subtle acting of the children in the film. The charming Michel Joelsas is perfect as the shy but energetic Mauro who never gives up hope that his parents will return. His big expressive eyes do most of the talking in the film. Daniela Piepszyk is Mauro’s sly friend, Hanna, who opens Mauro’s eyes to his new surroundings, particularly a peep hole in back of her mother’s clothing boutique. Both act better than some people twice their age.
Although “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation” may not be as entertaining as Macaulay Culkin screaming into a mirror with shaving cream on his face, Mauro is a more enduring character with a better story.