O Ano em Que Meus Pais Saíram de Férias (The Year My Parents Went On Vacation) (2006)

***** SPOILERS *****

The Year My Parents Went On Vaction tells the story of a pre-teen boy in São Paulo, Brazil, separated from his parents during a military coup in 1970. As the army takes over, the country is distracted in part by Brazil’s successes in the World Cup of that year (sort of like following the pennant race or NFL football in the U.S. as the country’s financial system implodes). The movie is pleasant, never dull, well shot, with a delicate score that adds to the feelings of sadness and loss inherent in the plot (the director threw out the first score written for the movie; Beto Villares then did it over and got it right).

TYMPWOV begins with a mother and father taking their son to grandfather’s house in São Paulo. The three are riding in a VW bug, ’65 or earlier. A Brazilian friend suggests that for verisimilitude, they should have been in a Renault or Citroen, because the bug was the inexpensive car of youth and the lower middle-class; her family always drove French cars. Be that as it may, the movie’s streets are rife with vintage bugs and VW buses, though I did spot a Renault or two. I mention this because the first car that I bought and paid for with my own money was a new ’67 bug from Belmont Motors in Massachusetts, powder blue. It has been sitting since 1981 or so in a succession of company parking lots, progressively degenerating until, paint gone, wheels seized, flowering weeds growing from dirt caught in the chassis crevicles, it looks so bad that I was ordered to have it towed off the property because it had become an eyesore, at least to one sorehead in the company who remained anonymous – the bug’s engine refusing to start, a hole in the floor threatening to release the battery under the back seat like a bomb dropped from its bay at the first speed bump, the windows opaque as my glasses in the Turkish bath down the street. Fortunately, my son stepped up and volunteered to restore the car as a hobby. He abstracted it on a flatbed towtruck via Raul’s Towing Service to his driveway, where it sat, partially disassembled, for a week or two before the city, at the behest of neighbors or a cruising patrol car, ordered him to remove it. He rolled the poor thing into his garage, wheels now at least freed, out of sight behind closed doors, and since then he has ordered replacement parts from an unending list. He tells me that there are two sources from which to obtain these parts: (a) a quality manufacturer somewhere or other, or (b)Brazil. You want quality, you go to the quality manufacturer; you want cheap, you go to Brazil. I don’t know if that’s true or not but when I replaced a bumper a long time ago, it had a “Made in Brazil” sticker on the inside surface. One tap by another vehicle and the bumper folded up like an origami noodle. Also, curiously, ’67 door handles are unavailable. But the point is, if you’re a bug lover you might want to give TYMPWOV a little love for that reason if for no other.

Director/writer Cao Hamburger and his co-writer, Claudio Galperin, were both born in São Paulo in 1962 and were eight years old when General Emilio Medici engineered his coup. Hamburger’s parents “went on vacation” at that time, but only for a few weeks. In this movie, Hamburger and Galperin share some of their childhood experiences growing up in the cultural melting-pot of São Paulo. Hamburger’s father came from a German/Jewish family that emigrated to Brazil before World War II. His mother was of Italian/Catholic stock, though both parents were non-religious scientists as he grew up. He says that he began thinking about São Paulo’s mix of cultures and his roots while living and feeling like an outsider in London, another city where races and nationalities mingle. According to Hamburger (and my Brazilian friends), Brazil is deeply divided over socio-economic class issues (the rich, a small middle-class, and the poor) but is accepting of emigrants; he refers to Brazilian culture as Samba culture – “Samba” here meaning, roughly, “let’s all dance together.” In fact, Hamburger started out with all sorts of ideas for the movie, but while making it settled on the idea of enjoying the brief periods of sunshine in life on a cloudy day. The movie was made on a medium budget by Brazilian standards. Since the success of films like Central Station and City of God, Hamburger says, funding opportunities for cinema have gotten a lot better. He used professionals as well as non-actors from the community, which in the film is a conservative Jewish neighborhood. Today, Hamburger says, this neighborhood is Korean, but since he is exploring his own roots, for the purposes of the film it remains Jewish. Hamburger spent four months finding an empty apartment building to use for the shoot; the movie was filmed completely on location.

So often in making a movie, the director starts out with an idea and massages it until a theme for the film is produced. This process can extend over years with input from editors, writers, friends, family, and assorted other sources while the director chases funding, as I describe in my review of Manda Bala. Hamburger’s initial inspiration was to examine the mixture of cultures in Brazil, and from that grew the idea of examining a year in the life of a boy growing up in the same time and place that Hamburger and Galperin did. During the making of the movie, the military coup and contemperaneous world-cup excitement in the film emerged, according to the director, as metaphors for life. It seems to me that some of these metaphors crop up post-production but perhaps I’m just metaphor-blind or metaphor-averse. Does a movie metaphor count if it’s discovered after the movie is finished? Does it count if a reviewer invokes it, rather than the director? I do like the way that Claudia Llosa, for example, disavows metaphors in her Maven-reviewed Madeinusa, a movie which could easily be weighed down with them. I’m guessing that Hamburger’s military coup and World Cup would remain in the movie whether Hamburger deemed them metaphors or not. As it is, he has one more thing to talk about during interviews.

Anyway, the coup represents a dark day and the World-Cup victory represents a shaft of sunlight breaking through the gloom of that day. The dark day is life under the military regime and the sunlight represents those moments in life that you must embrace in order to get through the bad patches – did I just nest a metaphor within a metaphor there? The life of goalies in general is also a metaphor in the movie, but if the victory is a bright shaft of sunlight, what is the goalie? A meteorite the size of Oshgosh? Who knows? The gray day/sunlight metaphor, applied to my own personal life, would be like at my work, where my boss would be dictator General Emilio Medici, and out of the grinding gray of morning I would emerge at lunchtime to sit down across from Izzy Vulvano and beat his pants off playing Magic and using my special red and black deck. Also the movie is about dealing with our loneliness and our connections to others, how we make them and break them and move on. Is the movie itself a metaphor for that, or just a movie about that? Also, the director does not agree that soccer is the opiate of the masses, exploited by the junta in this case to maintain calm. Hamburger is going for gray day/sunshine here, not gray day/opium. And having mentioned Manda Bala above, note that this whole movie unfurled without a kidnapping or fried frog in sight, but only because the whole country is under siege from an autocratic military dictatorship rather than a scourge of corrupt politicians and kidnapping-for-profit criminal thugs.

Strangely, Hamburger’s soccer metaphor gets turned on its head at the end of the movie. Irony? Another layer? Or just part of the movie that doesn’t conform to a simple, stumbled-upon talking point? I thought about calling Hamburger and asking him, but nobody likes a wiseass.

When the metaphorical army arrives in Michel’s neighborhood and starts dragging young men out of their union offices in São Paulo, clubbing them and hurling them into vans while the boy’s parents are in hiding, it occurred to me to wonder whether such scenes are automatically more powerful when filmed in the country where they are supposed to have happened, in the language in which they happened, by victims or the relatives of victims of the evils portrayed. Or, for a subtitle-hating country like America, could such a scene be made more visceral and moving if shot in Hollywood for U.S. consumption? For example, would Der Untergang or The Lives of Others have retained their energy or even gained some, if they had been made, shot for shot, in the U.S. with U.S. actors instead of Germans? Ennio De Concini tried it with xxAlec Guiness playing Hitler but I think we can agree that that didn’t work as well as Bruno Ganz doing it. Being a cinema snob, I would say without cavil that it is intuitively obvious that the Brazilian version of the coup or the German version of Hitler’s last days cannot fail to have an innate power, if well enough done, that a U.S. version could never match. But hold on. Summer Palace provides a dramatic take on Tiananmen Square and the events there in 1989, yet I’ve heard plenty of squawking (from round eyes) about its failure to do justice to that historic conflict. Would a movie about Tiananmen, made along the lines of The Last Emperor, fare better in the U.S? Could Gettysburg withstand a transfer to Japan; if Kurosawa made it, might it even improve in the eyes of the Japanese? Or in the eyes of American viewers as well? How to assign metrics to questions like these? It’s easy to just say that the better the filmmaker, the better the film, for all informed viewers of taste. Do the French still love Jerry Lewis? Are Hollywood blockbusters still the biggest grossers all around the world? And children in movies – does the fact that the child is native to a country foreign to the viewer and speaks a foreign language have any effect one way or the other on that viewer? Rather than approaching these questions from first principles, maybe the thing to do is to evaluate a hundred movies or so, make a call on each, and examine the results for trends.

And speaking of children, how do they learn to act so well? Or isn’t learning involved? Teens act in high-school drama classes and plays – they’re learning something there, I guess. They act in community theater, especially in locations where drama in the schools is being cut. Adults go to drama school, but often act badly in films anyway. And yet I see movie after movie in which children act just fine (Mother of Mine, Wondrous Oblivion, Birth, Kabluey (where the kids are caricatures, but good caricatures.) On the other hand, that kid in The Dick Van Dyke Show… ouch.). Is aging an antidote to natural inborn talent? As we grow up, do we lose our ability to act? Or are these children, who seem to be acting so well, actually not doing much at all? In TYMPWOV, is the boy mostly just running around, looking upset, and playing with his tabletop soccer set, or is he interacting with others and… well, acting. I called the Stella Adler School in Manhattan to ask these questions, but the woman I spoke to told me that the youngest students they enroll are 14-year-olds (eight Saturday classes from 10 to 6, $800. No waiting list.) I asked the woman if the under-14s I see in the movies have been trained, or if whatever they show is just natural ability. She could only surmise. I asked if the Stella Adler Saturday classes have produced some success stories; she said yes, but didn’t name anybody I’ve heard of. She didn’t have much else to say about younger children and their appearances in movies, so I called a school out in the Valley (Sherman Oaks) which takes kids as young as 8. Sherman Oaks is up the 405 from Santa Monica, just over the hills from Hollywood. The fellow I spoke to told me flatly that every young person onscreen today has taken classes. He listed graduates from his school now appearing in Desperate Housewives, Everyone Hates Chris, etc., etc. (Classes from 10 to noon on Saturdays.) Agents and casting directors visit frequently, nominally as “class assistants,” but actually trolling for talent; or maybe just trying to make a living. For example:

****For Young actors:
Howard Meltzer
Hannah Montana Casting Director
TV Intensive – Saturday, October 4th

In each class session, the children work on a scene. In addition, there is instruction in preparation, auditioning, so forth. Camps and career-placement services are available. I asked the fellow whether children start out with talent and then lose it, or whether talent is distributed among children in the same proportion as among adults, and if so, what the classes might add to that. According to him, we’re all natural-born actors. As children, we play-act all the time, but as we age, we forget how much fun that acting can be. Acting classes, like organized sports, are just a modern way of letting children continue to have fun. And just as you won’t be playing in the NFL or NBA unless you associate yourself with an organized program, just so you won’t break into Hollywood without connections. Plus, I’m now getting casting calls for some reason.

Hamburger claims to have auditioned more than a thousand children looking for his stars in TYMPWOV. When he found the boy and girl that he wanted for the leads, Michel Joelsas and Daniela Piepszyk, he changed the script to fit them. Joelsas had never acted in a movie before (like Magaly Solier in Madeinusa, who had never even been in a movie theater when Claudia Llosa made her the lead in her movie). Hamburger says that Joelsas had talent and other characteristics of his personality that helped him to compose the character, such as “his shyness, his introspection, his curiosity about life, and his strength.” And his “intelligence and a sense of observation. And he had strong charisma. He’s also got a certain shyness and an inner strength.” Hamburger introduced all the children in his movie slowly to the characters that they were to play, perhaps Mike Leigh-like. There was improvisation. None of the kids saw a script during the shooting of the movie. So no acting class there, unless you count Hamburger’s direction; TYMPWOV argues for inborn talent, but only in one in a thousand or so. “The way I work with them is the most important element. I treat them as intelligent people. They are not children. They are spiritual, intelligent human beings. What I look for in casting children is charisma and talent, but, more than that, I want smart people. There is a very natural sense – especially the kids with their reactions…We worked a lot to have this very natural feel, but there is a lot of work behind it.” So roll the film of Michel’s audition. What the heck did this kid have to do when he came through the door, number 1013, with Hamburger languishing there in his director’s chair, in order to get picked boss boy? Bark like a dog? I coulda been a contender? Put on blackface, fall to his knees, and sing Mammy? We’ll never know. Now my niece – those auditions are brutal. She crawls on her belly like a reptile. They badger her about her tattoos. Surely there were tattoos in Shakespeare’s time, weren’t there, even if they weren’t coupling ferrets over You Suck! in red and green on her shoulder blades?

When I say that the kids were fine in the movie, I just mean that I watched the movie and never found myself thinking, “This kid is acting.” What they were actually doing onscreen, I wasn’t exactly paying attention to. Sometimes in a movie I do think about what the child is up to: when Cameron Bright gets into the bath with a naked Nicole Kidman in Birth, I found myself speculating about how that was accomplished without breaking any laws. When Dylan Baker has a talk with his son in Happiness, about Baker’s pedophilia and his abuse of the boy’s sleepover friend the night before, I knew in advance that Baker was actually talking to the air and his son’s reaction shots were filmed later. But in general, I don’t sit watching for signs that actors are acting, child or otherwise. Mary Badham and Phillip Alford in To Kill a Mockingbird? How much were they given to do? Can’t remember. Scout narrates the movie, but as an adult. Are kids mostly asked to just look worried, or angry, or confused? How often does a kid have to laugh in a movie? What’s the story on kid monologs? 726,000 Google hits for “kid monologs,” including the following from Henry V:

BOY: As young as I am, I have observed these three swashers. I am boy to all three; but all three, though they would serve me, could not be man to me; for indeed three such antics do not amount to a man. For Bardolph, he is white-livered and red-faced; by the means whereof ‘a faces it out, but fights not. For Pistol, he hath a killing tongue and a quiet sword; by the means whereof ‘a breaks word and keeps whole weapons. For Nym, he hath heard that men of few words are the best men, and therefore he scorns to say his prayers, lest ‘a should be thought a coward; but his few bad words are matched with as few good deeds, for ‘a never broke any man’s head but his own, and that was against a post when he was drunk. They will steal anything, and call it purchase. Bardolph stole a lute-case, bore it twelve leagues, and sold it for three halfpence. Nym and Bardolph are sworn brothers in filching, and in Calais they stole a fire-shovel. I knew by that piece of service the men would carry coals. They would have me as familiar with men’s pockets as their gloves or handkerchers; which makes much against my manhood, if I should take from another’s pocket to put into mine; for it is plain pocketing up of wrongs. I must leave them and seek some better service. Their villainy goes against my weak stomach, and therefore I must cast it up.

Wow. Maybe Michel laid that one on Hamburger.

When I think of “bad acting,” am I just reacting to bad line readings? In Son of Rambow, the boys have a lot to say and every once in a while I’d raise an eyebrow. In TYMPWOV, Joelsas and Peipszyk and the other kids are required to show their chops as follows:

First twenty-five minutes: Michel (Joelsas) is the only child in the first quarter of the movie, except for a brief interaction with Hanna (Piepszyk). He plays by himself, asks his parents questions, looks out the car window at the big city and, by the way, narrates the film creditably. Sustains hugs from his parents. (As a child, I was hugged by a woman in a play once and I had to stand there and take it with a smile.) This is a good-looking young man. The camera loves him. So he walks, runs, waits, frowns at strange food, pisses in a flowerpot. It all looks real to me. I guess that’s acting.

Second twenty-five minutes: Michel gets slapped, runs away, cooks in the kitchen, kills time around the house. Now some face time with Hanna – mild dialog – but since I don’t speak Portuguese, how can I evaluate their line readings? Rats. (And by the way, watching the movie, I mostly couldn’t distinguish Portuguese from Yiddish; be nice if the subtitles would indicate which was being spoken – and ditto for Swedish and Finnish in Mother of Mine). At 39 minutes (out of 100), Michel meets Hanna’s friends, three boys. They refer to Michel as the goy. Ten minutes of ensemble child acting; all five seem a little stiff, but they’re just meeting each other for the first time, so maybe in real life they would be stiff. Will the stiffness persist? Now Michel settles in with his neighbor, the elderly Shlomo next door, and makes friends throughout the neighborhood. He’s not asked to say much by Hamburger, but he does a lot of worrying about his parents, running around the neighborhood, so on. At the halfway point in the film, the World Cup begins.

Third twenty-five minutes: First World-Cup match with everyone watching; Michel spending time alone again in the apartment; then with a whole crowd of kids – minimal dialog; back home at the one-hour mark. Second match. Polish Jew, Italian Jew, Greek, African, German Jew, Hamburger really pushing the melting-pot theme. Local soccer game. Narration by boy. He wants to be a goalie. Another World-Cup match (sees first with Shlomo, second at the union, third with the old women. Local kids game with Michel as goalie. Piepszyk gives him a gift in a one-on-one scene with dialog. Michel goes to synagogue.

Final twenty-five minutes: The kids do an excellent acting job at a bar mitzvah celebration. And then some acting by Joelsas, as he helps a young union member hide from the army and secret police. Emoting, face to face with an adult! Some intense moments. Then more alone time for the boy, now coping with his worries in a more mature way than at the beginning. And the final soccer match, and more perfect-pitch behavior from Joelsas. And drama to wrap up. The boy has charisma, for sure. I believed him, from start to finish, and the other kids too.

And lest I forget, every time a goal was scored, everybody whooped and waved their arms in the air and I wondered if all the women in Brazil were shaving under their arms in 1970. According to a Brazilian I asked, the answer is yes. Looks come first in Brazil, she told me, and that includes proper underarm maintenance.

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