Bom Dia, Brazil!

Running Time 100 minutes
Directed by Cao Hamburger
Written by Cao Hamburger, Claudio Galperin, Braulio Mantovani, Anna Muylaert
Starring Michel Joelsas, Germano Haiut, Daniela Piepszyk

Cao Hamburger’s The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, from a screenplay (in Portuguese with English subtitles, though occasional snatches of Yiddish are unsubtitled) by Claudio Galperin, Braulio Mantovani, Anna Muylaert and Mr. Hamburger, is based on an original story by Mr. Hamburger and Claudio Galperin. It is Brazil’s official selection for the 2008 Academy Award for best foreign-language film, after having been shown to enthusiastic audiences at the Berlin and Rio International Film Festivals.

The serio-comic story is told almost entirely through the eyes of a 12-year-old child, Mauro (Michel Joelsas), who is sent to his Jewish grandfather’s apartment in the multiethnic enclave of the Bom Retiro district in Sao Paulo. Mauro’s cover story, which he believes implicitly, is that he is to stay with his grandfather while his parents, actually left-wing activists, go “on vacation” to escape the clutches of the dreaded Brazilian secret police. Mauro is completely unaware of his parents’ political problems, but when he arrives at his grandfather’s apartment and knocks on the door repeatedly with no response, he sits in the doorway for a long time before he is informed by his grandfather’s next-door neighbor, Schlomo (Germano Haiut), that Mauro’s Jewish grandfather has died, and Mauro has arrived in time for the funeral. We gradually learn that Schlomo is an employee at the local synagogue, and that Mauro is only half-Jewish and, in fact, an uncircumcised boy with a Jewish mother and an Italian father. (Mr. Hamburger, the film’s writer-director, reveals in the production notes that his own father was Jewish and his mother Italian.)

The year is 1970, in a period of political turbulence under the dictatorial rule of a succession of right-wing generals, who suppressed all civil liberties from 1964 through 1985. That year Brazil won the World Cup for the third time with an all-star Brazilian team led by Pelé, probably the most famous soccer player, even for Americans, like me, who did not follow soccer.

Mauro is a tabletop-soccer enthusiast, but he has never gotten the chance to play for real until he is thrust into a veritable cauldron of ethnic groups composed of Jewish, Greek, Italian and Arab immigrants, all peacefully living together, united only by their passion for soccer. Mauro is soon befriended by a brashly tomboyish Jewish girl, Hanna (Daniela Piepszyk), who impudently extorts money from the neighborhood boys for showing the way to peepholes behind the dressing rooms of a dress shop. Mauro also develops a crush on Irene (Liliana Castro), a friendly, attractive older waitress at the local bar where everyone goes to watch Pelé and his teammates battle for the World Cup. Irene’s boyfriend, Edgar (Rodrigo dos Santos), is the mulatto goalie of the local team, and his exciting play inspires Mauro to train to become a goalie.

Eventually, Mauro is rejoined by his mother without his father, who presumably will never return from his “vacation.” I found the film fascinating for showing me entertainingly a world I still know very little about. The performance of Master Joelsas and Ms. Piepszyk demonstrate once more that this is the golden age of child performers here and abroad. Not that the adult actors—Mr. Haiut in the gruffly nurturing role of Shlomo, Ms. Castro as Irene, and Simone Spoladore, Caio Blat, Eduardo Moreira, and Paulo Autran in the other major roles—are lacking in talent and conviction. Their names are exotic and unfamiliar, but their presences remain vivid in my memory as alien ambassadors from another world, which the cinema has richly reproduced. Bom Dia, Brazil!