Friday, June 1, 2012

Film Review: "The Year My Parents Went On Vacation" ("O Ano em Que Meus Pais Saíram de Férias")

This film appeared in 2006 and was nominated and won several awards, most of them in Latin America.  It received positive reviews and the plot line sounded interesting.  The film has a lot going for it:  overall, the cast is strong, the premise is intriguing, and the filmmaker did a good job recreating the look of 1970, which is when the story takes place.

However, there are several problems which keep the film from being a great one, and instead relegate it to the status of being somewhere between good and very good.  

It's probably unfair to compare this film to "Central Station," but it's almost impossible not to, because both stories involve young boys who are suddenly separated from their parents and who  find themselves in the company of eccentric and unpredictable adults.  I tried hard not to judge the film for not being "Central Station," but I will make some references to "Central Station" in my review.

The first problem I had with this film came at the very beginning when Mauro (played by Michel Joelsas), the boy from whose perspective the story is told, is dropped off by his parents (Daniel and Bia) in front of his paternal grandfather's apartment building.  And when I say dropped off, that's exactly what happens.  The background: Mauro's father must leave his home in Belo Horizonte because he has come under the suspicion of the military dictatorship.  We are never told the specifics, nor does the family act as if there is great urgency in their flight.  They tell Mauro that they are simply going away on vacation, and instruct him to repeat that if anybody asks where they are.  

They drive from Belo Horizonte to São Paulo and spend the night in a motel along the way.  As they near São Paulo, Mauro's father, calls his father, Mótel, from a pay phone to inform him that they are almost there.  The father seems to protest (we can only hear Daniel's side of the conversation), but Daniel assures him that they have to drop Mauro off today, it cannot wait.  

OK, that struck me as strange to begin with.  Are we to believe that the parents would not have made more specific arrangements for the care of their child prior to embarking on the journey from Belo Horizonte to São Paulo?  What if Mótel had not answered the phone?  What if he had absolutely refused to take the child?  It did not make sense, especially since both parents were treating Mauro with great affection and tenderness.

Still, I was willing to give the director my suspension of disbelief long enough to see what happened next.  That's when the director lost my willing suspension of disbelief.  The parents drove up to the apartment building, got Mauro and his suitcase out of the car, said a very hasty good-bye (probably faster than most Brazilian parents would have said to a child going away to spend a weekend with a friend), and drove off.  They made no attempt to walk with the child into the apartment building, let alone see if the grandfather was home.  They literally left him standing on the street.  Now, I guess we were supposed to believe that they were under such pressure to escape government scrutiny that they had no time to walk the child in to meet his grandfather, but if that were the case, surely they would have driven straight through and not wasted a night sleeping in a motel.  

Mauro gamely enters the grim apartment building, and referring to a slip of paper that his mother must have put in his pocket, finds his grandfather's apartment.  He knocks, rings the bell, but nobody answers.  This is because, as we're shown through a series of flashbacks, Mauro's grandfather has suffered a heart attack and died.  Since Mauro being on his own is the central theme of the whole film, the script should have established the circumstances which brought this about in a much more credible way.  

By the end of the day, Mauro has met the rather cranky Shlomo, the next-door neighbor, one of many people he will meet during the time that his parents are away.  Luckily, the cast included several engaging and talented actors, among them Daniela Piepszyk (who also appeared in the HBO series "Alice," where she played an appealingly strong-willed child).  Ms. Piepszyk played Hanna, a neighbor who is about Mauro's age and who is able to coax him out of his grandfather's apartment, where he has holed up in order to avoid living with Shlomo.  The idea that an entire apartment building of otherwise caring people would just assume it was acceptable for a young child to live on his own also was a stretch.  Furthermore, the fact that he was living alone in the apartment of his dead grandfather, the father of someone who had apparently escaped the repressive dictatorship, was implausible.  Surely if the government had been trying to track down Daniel, they would have showed up at his father's apartment asking questions.  

The second problem I had with the film was that it tried to do too much at once.  The director wanted to deal with the military dictatorship and the way it influenced the lives of everyday Brazilians, he wanted to cover the 1970 World Cup which Brazil went on to win, he wanted to deal with the Jewish community in São Paulo, and he wanted to view all of this through the eyes of a young boy.  Unfortunately, it felt as if he bit off more than he could chew, and the film started to struggle under the weight of so many story elements.  The most convincing of these elements was the focus on soccer and Mauro's obsession with Brazil's national sport, which rang true and offered some of his best scenes in the film.  I particularly liked the fast cuts showing different groups watching the same soccer match on TV:  first we'd see a group of elderly Jewish spectators watching in their apartment, then it would cut to a neighborhood diner with a rowdy group of young people, then to a man holding a portable radio to his ear.  There was a spontaneity about these scenes that helped the film to come alive.

The repression of the dictatorship was mostly hinted at until one scene near the end, where students are beaten up and arrested by horse-mounted police.  This scene was also effective, as it evoked memories of the Cossacks invading Jewish villages on horseback, but it also felt as if it came out of nowhere.  I realize that the director wanted the film to be shown from the standpoint of a politically naive child, but if you're going to make political oppression a central theme in a film, it needs to be developed more than it was.  

Compared to "Central Station," I found the cinematography merely adequate.  There were some scenes that were visually appealing, but there were many missed opportunities, too.  The film focused more on dialogue and action to move things along, and at times, both of these dragged it down more than they helped.  I guess my biggest problem with the film, besides the highly implausible chain of events that led to Mauro being on his own in a strange place, was the lack of a tighter story line.  Things just rambled about too much, at least for the first half of the movie.  I did feel that it got stronger as it went along, almost in spite of itself, and most of that was due to some really good acting by some very good actors, but even the actors at times seemed to be acting as individuals, not as a part of a group.  Compared to "Central Station," where total strangers built relationships in a matter of minutes (and did so in a credible way), these people seemed more isolated, and in some cases more connected to Mauro than friends and neighbors they had known for much longer.  

But the main appeal of the film is the outstanding job that Michel Joelsas does as Mauro.  In spite of the implausibility of the premise of the story, he makes us believe that it *could* have happened.  He adapts and adjusts and stands up for himself, even to the point where we almost believe, "Well, OK, this kid cannot stand Shlomo, so he moves into his grandfather's apartment……it could happen".  

The transfer to DVD is excellent, both in terms of picture and audio quality.  There are English and Spanish subtitles, a "making of" featurette that is quite good, interviews with cast members (parts of which are repeated in the "making of" feature), and extended scenes and outtakes.  

I do not want to leave the impression that I disliked the film, because I didn't, but I was disappointed that with so much going for it, it wasn't a lot better than it was.  


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