‘The Year’ I lived in Sao Paolo with Jews

Let’s face it: You’d enjoy watching a cute little boy playing soccer. You might even pay to sit in a dark theater and eat popcorn while doing so. But if you’re expecting a more meaningful experience than that from “O Ano em Que Meus Pais Sairam de Ferias” (“The Year My Parents Went on Vacation”), you will be disappointed.

The film, directed by Cao Hamburger and starring the adorable Michel Joelsas, tells the story of a young soccer-loving boy named Mauro living in Brazil in 1970. His parents, wanted by the military dictatorship for unexplained reasons, decide to leave him with his grandfather while they are “on vacation” — presumably in hiding or in jail. Inconveniently, the grandfather dies just before Mauro arrives at his apartment, leaving him effectively abandoned in a neighborhood of Sao Paolo called Bom Retiro. The neighborhood is strongly Jewish, full of Yiddish-speaking black hat types who fled to South America during the Holocaust. A neighbor of his grandfather’s, a yarmulked and bearded old man named Shlomo who seems to have forgotten what it means to be young, takes pity on Mauro and tries his best to care for him.

“Vacation” portrays the miseries and joys of Mauro’s life that year as he adjusts to his unwanted independence, discovers an unfamiliar culture, roots for Brazil in the World Cup and waits anxiously for his parents’ return.

But as eventful as that sounds, not much actually happens. And though that can sometimes be a nice change from the action-packed pace of American cinema, in this case it mostly results in a lack of cohesion. There’s just not enough material with which to make any sort of point.

The movie is certainly trying to tell us something, maybe in part about race — a lot of emphasis is placed on the fact that soccer stars Pele and Tostao play on the same team, presumably representing a successful partnership between black and white. And the same soccer-fueled transcendence of racial barriers is mirrored in the local Bom Retiro games between the Italians and the Jews, whose goalie is a black man with a Greek girlfriend. At one point Mauro announces that his greatest aspiration is to be a black goalie. So … soccer is an arena where race becomes less important? Living in a big city is nice because people of different races interact? The movie doesn’t say anything new or particularly concrete here.

Frustratingly, it also mostly ignores the issue of Mauro’s relationship to his father’s religion. Mauro, who is not Jewish, watches wide-eyed as one of his peers becomes a bar mitzvah, and after some initial reluctance he allows Shlomo to call him “Moishele,” which means “Little Moses.” But mostly he seems to be completely indifferent — no curiosity, no rejection, no attachment. He does describe himself as a “goalkeeper,” which seems as though it’s supposed to have some kind of deeper significance apart from soccer, but the film provides no hints as to what that might be.

Still, Mauro’s sad but inescapable plight is interesting in and of itself, and the tender portrayal of the poor kid’s frustrations and tentative friendships makes the film worthwhile. “Vacation” is most moving when it portrays Mauro’s compassion toward an anti-totalitarian friend of his father’s. After the man is beaten up by the police, Mauro hides him in his grandfather’s old apartment, showing him the kind of tenderness Mauro might have wished to receive from Shlomo. As sweet as the scene is, though, it isn’t exactly character development. By the time Mauro leaves Bom Retiro, all one can really say about him is that he grew up. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t make for particularly thrilling cinema either.

Even if its treatment of familiar themes like soccer and totalitarianism doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, it’s nonetheless a likeable and rather entertaining movie. It’s incredibly endearing to watch old Jewish men in suits jumping up and down in front of the television chanting “Brasil!” And Mauro, to the film’s immense benefit, is a compelling character with all the zest of boyhood and no artificial sweeteners. If nothing else, the movie is engrossing because the viewers want to be reassured that he’ll be okay.

Or at least to watch him dribble the ball a few more times.

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