Spout Mavens Disc #12: The Year My Parents Went on Vacation [O Ano em Que Meus Pais Saíram de Férias] (2006)

Director: Cao Hamburger
Brazilian, 1:45, color
Cinema 4 Rating: 7

I never went out and actively looked for a job in soccer. It never even occurred to me that one would ever want a job in soccer. And yet, I have one. I stumbled upon it absolutely by accident, and it has meant the world to me. I have learned so much through this stumble -- not necessarily about soccer -- and I hope that others perceive that I am the better for it, because that is certainly how I feel about it.

Before I took this job, though, I never imagined just how fully vested the rest of the world outside the U.S. was in this simple sport, what has been termed "the beautiful game" by people far more knowledgeable about these things than I am. Me, I always assumed that the game which had trademarked beauty was my beloved baseball -- you know, the one with the spitting, crotch-grabbing, often yokel players and the brushback pitches and mound-charging brawls. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that eye just beheld some chin music...

Hell, as a kid, I never even saw anyone play soccer until I was in high school. I didn't play it until then. Little League baseball, Pop Warner football and Pee Wee hockey were it as far as I can remember. You did them all or you did one, in my experience. I did one -- the obvious one -- and I did it badly... epically badly. But I was obsessed by the center of my failure. I ignored my failure and still embraced "my" beautiful game. Unable to play the game physically in a proper manner, I took it to the table. I invented my own baseball dice game, and even though eventually, I would move to Strat-O-Matic baseball and other professional versions into my adulthood, I never loved any of them as much as my own stupid tabletop invention. I memorized thousands of baseball cards, and then used those same cards to hold each player's position on the table, and I spoke in what I imagined were the voices of the players as they swung at each pitch of the dice ("boxcars" meant "home run," by the way), and acted out the play according to those rolls of the dice. I kept scorecards too (I still have some of them in my files), and I was very careful to choose a proper lineup based on each player's stats on the backs of their cards, even if the chance of the dice completely drove away any purpose to my doing this. I was kid, and I was in love with my sport -- what did I know?

In The Year My Parents Went On Vacation, young Mauro is in love with his sport, soccer, too. And he, too, has taken it to the table. Playing with a pair of tiny goals and poker-style chips, along with a pair of matchboxes decorated to portray the individual goalies, Mauro spends his idle hours quietly holding his own World Cup, with his beloved home country Brazil and its amazing star Pelé bringing all challengers to their knees. Unlike me, though, Mauro can play his beautiful game -- perhaps he is even as good as most of the kids in his neighborhood -- but on the tabletop, he is truly obsessive, and the master of his world. However, in this quiet, emotionally rewarding Brazilian film, we never get the chance to see just how good Mauro is against those neighborhood kids in street ball, because no sooner do we meet the lad, than he is whisked away from his home to São Paulo, the home of his grandfather, a beloved barber in a small, tightly knitted Jewish community.

The year is 1970, and Mauro's parents are involved with a communist organization that is under intense pressure from the military dictatorship which controlled Brazil over parts of three decades. They leave Mauro at the stoop of his grandfather's apartment building and drive off, telling their son to tell everyone that asks that they "went away on vacation." They promise their young son, who in his innocence has no real way of comprehending how his world is possibly falling apart around him, that they shall return in time for the World Cup. We know upon hearing this that it is likely nothing more than a little white lie, but Mauro not only believes it, but practically builds his own religion around the statement. His every action from this point on, no matter how it affects those around him, will center around his belief in his parents' timely return.

What no one could have figured into the equation is that Mauro's grandfather will perish from heart failure the very afternoon of Mauro's arrival. Mauro is discovered waiting sadly for his grandfather to appear by a kindly neighbor. The neighbor, Shlomo, a Polish Jew, despite his initial protestations to his synagogue, is convinced to to take care of the boy until the return of his parents. But Mauro is not a quiet little innocent. He is sullen and pouty and given to temper tantrums due to his obsessiveness. He is also remarkably independent, even living by himself in his grandfather's place for a while, surviving through the intervention of a cute, smart neighbor girl named Hannah, healthy meals with the chatty women of the apartment building, and some surprising friends he meets on his exile from his parents. (One touch I really enjoyed was the way in which there weren't any subtitles anytime that Shlomo would say something in either Polish or Hebrew that Mauro himself wouldn't understand. We are kept as much in the dark as he is over what is being said.)

And always around all of this activity, there is the reality of the political struggle in the streets and the growing anticipation surrounding what every citizen, no matter where they stand politically, assumes will be a sure victory for Brazil in the World Cup. Every character's immediate side thought, outside of their own lives and survival, is for the game. Who will play where, who will team up best on the pitch, and what teams will match up best against Brazil. Like myself searching for an elusive Pete Rose card in 1977 while my parents drove us crazy with their battle for custody in a messy divorce, Mauro loses himself in packs of soccer cards, which he stores in a beloved notebook, all the while searching himself for that one special card. It was through my own parallels with Mauro's mindset at a roughly similar age that I was able to identify with this movie.

And yet, despite the general overall excellence of the piece, I found myself drifting. I am now at the age where I am caring less and less about identifying with a single sports franchise, and care not at all for any form of nationalism. As Mauro becomes more frustrated through the film waiting impatiently for his never-returning parents, like a pair of coupling Godots, so did I begin to lose some small interest. I don't even like to celebrate sports victories with people who are cheering for the same side as I am. So, as the whole of São Paulo buries themselves deeper and deeper into a nationalistic fervor over their beloved team -- which is supported throughout via vintage footage of the great Pelé and his compatriots scoring one unbelievable goal after another -- I began tuning out somewhat. Eventually, you are just watching other people watching television, and while there are a couple of interesting or clever exchanges that occur between characters during these sections, I grew as impatient as Mauro, joining him in his wish that his parents would just show up and get this thing over with already. It really didn't affect my opinion of the film in the end, but it does need to be pointed out that it can be a little tedious awaiting resolution.

And then I realized that so much of what happens in this film, and what happened in my own childhood at that age, arrived out of tedium and confusion. Likely, I became immersed in my tabletop baseball game for many of the same reasons that Mauro does with his game. His parents, deep in their political leanings and obviously important enough cogs within their own machinery that they have to flee the country, though loving parents, probably unintentionally drove Mauro deep into his fantasy soccer world through being too busy with their real one. Likewise, my game was grown out of frustration with the goings on in my home life, and it was just easier to tune everything out with a self-created and managed baseball game of my own. That both of us had to grow up and take what lessons we could from our experiences was all that we could do. Both too young to deal with the real world in these terms; both unable to avoid it either.

Often the reason why people band together to cheer for a single team or hero can be a form of group catharsis. It doesn't have to be so much a warlike brutishness -- though many times it can be -- but rather a shared relief. Those that people The Year My Parents Went on Vacation -- Mauro and his neighbors in the Jewish neighborhood, all come together through sport, and it is easy to see how one game can capture much of the globe, especially one as mired in poverty and war as ours. My troubles have never even come close to equally those in both this film and in the real world that largely worships soccer. But we have all found that sweet relief that sport can often bring to the psyche.

It is fortunate for all of us, despite the differences in our individual preferred sports, that they can all share the same "beautiful" aspect: as a small form of blessed, temporary escape from a world too cruel and uncaring sometimes to handle.


EggOfTheDead said…
Soccer is one of the few sports I "get," but I've never understood the mob mentality of team sports fans. I sure enjoyed playing it, though, when I was a kid.

My dad built a cardboard HAM shack in his family basement and threw himself into electronics with the same fervor, and for the same reasons, that you and Mauro got into tabletop sports. It was a beautiful thing and it saved his ass.

Miss you!
(this comment is for Egg. Sorry, Rik)

Have you read Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs? Chuck Klosterman has an essay in there about how soccer, alone among all other team sports, celebrates individuality over community. You might be interested.

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