In 1970, Brazil won the World Cup, sending millions of her people into the streets in a colossal outpouring of national pride. But, paradoxically, these were anything but proud days for the country. Since the 1964 CIA-backed coup, which had installed a ruthless and jealous military dictatorship, Brazilians – especially those not immune to accusations of Communism, Socialism, or Subversion – had lived under the ever-present threat of violence.
In these dark days, “disappearances” (that horrific euphemism for the state-sanctioned kidnapping, torture and usually murder of subversives) abounded. Indeed, the nation that celebrated in 1970 was living under a neo-liberal regime which, in its callous insistence to govern without the endorsement of its people, was leading the country down a disastrous path.
Cao Hamburger’s 2006 coming of age film aims to navigate between these two great emotional poles – between the elation of national triumph on the soccer pitch, and the creeping terror of the thought police. In some ways he is undoubtedly successful, and in others less so, but the paradoxical question at the centre of this film, How can you cheer for a country that is your enemy?, is fascinatingly reiterated throughout.
The story follows preteen Mauro (an adorable Michel Joelsas) after he is dropped off in the Jewish Quarter of São Paulo by his youthful parents. Although they inform him that they are leaving on vacation, we sense that something is not right – why don’t they take him up to his grandfather’s apartment instead of leaving him like this, on the street in front of his building? But Mauro, child that he is, accepts this situation, waving goodbye to his weeping mother, and climbing the steps. (His parents, of course, have not gone on vacation, but are instead going into hiding from the government.)
Thus Mauro enters a new life in the Jewish ghetto, befriended by an old man named Schlomo (who sees in young Mauro echoes of the story of Moses in the reeds), and spending his days growing closer to a group of youngsters led by an extraordinarily precocious Daniela Piepszyk as Hannah. As the days turn to weeks, and the weeks turn to months, Mauro begins to confront the horrific possibility that his parents might never return. His only hope is the coming World Cup, which his father had told him offhandedly that they’d try to make it back for.
A slow first act gives way to a more engaging second, but it is the third and final section of the film that won me over. A great many social issues percolated and then boiled over in these last few minutes, as Mauro watches his new Jewish friends celebrate their Bar Mitzvahs, as he begins to fall in love with Hannah (who manages to be sultry, even at the age of 11 – this child is a marvelous actor), and as he confronts the alchemy of race that defines São Paulo’s cultural stew.
While I’ll admit that it took a long while to get into this story, I was held tight in its grip by the end – as the police circled ever closer, and as Pelé and Tastão led one of the most explosive teams ever fielded past the whole world on their way to victory. The darkness began to ebb, if only for a few hours, as Brazilians of all persuasions banded together to celebrate the Brazil that was, and that might be again.
This was, the movie seems to argue, a nationalism of hope. In the end, this dark and nightmarish world is lit up bright and shiny as a star.