"The Year My Parents Went on Vacation" is a sweet and somber film that works hard to overcome its limitations. Its tale of a 12-year-old boy coming of age has a weakness for the generic, but the film's setting is so quirkily unfamiliar in so many ways that it holds our interest in the way the boy's story doesn't always manage.
The year in question is 1970, the country, Brazil. A note at the beginning of the film tells us what Brazilians already know: 1970 was, among other things, a time when the country struggled under a military dictatorship that made any kind of political opposition terribly dangerous.
When we first meet young Mauro (Michel Joelsas), his agnostic parents are preparing to drop him off at his Jewish grandfather's as they head off for what they tell him is a vacation. But between the time the family leaves their small-town home and gets to the major metropolis of Sao Paulo, it becomes clear to us, if not to Mauro, that his parents are left-wing political dissidents who are having to go underground to keep from being arrested by the military.
One reason Mauro is oblivious to this is that there is no room in his young head for anything but soccer. And 1970 just happens to be a World Cup year, when Brazil's team, led by legends like Pele, Tostao and Gerson, will be trying for an unprecedented third cup victory.
It turns out, however, in the twist around which writer-director Cao Hamburger's plot pivots, that Mauro's grandfather has unexpectedly died while the family was enroute. Not knowing this, Mauro's parents drop him off and disappear.
Once the inevitable confusion clears up, the task of looking after Mauro falls to the grandfather's neighbor Shlomo (Germano Haiut), a cranky bachelor employee of the local synagogue. The multiethnic Bam Retiro suburb where the grandfather lived is home a lively Yiddish-speaking Jewish community. "If God left the boy at your door," the rabbi tells Shlomo, "he knows what he is doing."
Be that as it may, the initial interaction between these two is not promising, as both Shlomo and Mauro view each other as aliens from a distant and not particularly inviting planet. When the observant Shlomo discovers the boy playing soccer while wearing his sacred prayer shawl, the relationship almost ends before it begins.
Mauro has more luck with Hanna (Daniela Piepszyk), a feisty tomboy his own age who lives in the grandfather's building. She takes Mauro under her wing and introduces him to the rest of the neighborhood.
Though young Joelsas, a first time actor, does well conveying serious Mauro's adolescent urges and impulses, this nearly two-hour film spends more time than is good for it lovingly detailing the boy's youthful high jinks. We've seen this kind of aggressively heartwarming stuff before, and more than once.
What we haven't seen before is this politically tinged soccer-crazed Brazilian Jewish environment. Fortunately, filmmaker Hamburger, whose movie was one of the nine shortlisted for this year's foreign-language Oscar (it didn't make it to the final five), does not hold back from showing it to us.
So the more serious things get for political dissidents in Brazil, the more we get involved in Mauro's story. And the closer the Brazilian team gets to making World Cup history, the more engaging "The Year My Parents Went on Vacation" gets. If you haven't seen a group of bearded Orthodox Jews dance with joy at a Pele goal, you've seriously missed out.
"The Year My Parents Went on Vacation." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. In Portuguese and Yiddish with English subtitles. In limited release.