Director Walter Salles (1995's Foreign Land) is helped immeasurably in his task by two gifted lead actors, one a cherished veteran of Brazilian stage and screen, the other a complete novice.
Vinicius de Oliveira, a nine-year-old boy whom Salles discovered shining shoes at the Rio de Janeiro airport, brings an extraordinary combination of solemnity, innocence, dignity and intelligence to the role of Josue, a boy whose mother is run over by a bus just outside Rio's central train station. Josue is begrudgingly befriended by Dora (Fernanda Montenegro), a cynical 67-year-old former teacher who makes her living writing letters for illiterate travelers who pass through the train station. Dora's willful perversity is established early on when it is revealed that she never bothers to mail the hundreds of letters she writes, keeping some in a drawer at home and throwing the others away. Another, equally unconscionable deed nearly loses her the allegiance of her one friend, Irene (a wonderful performance from Marilia Péra).
Eventually, Dora and Josue board a bus for a remote Brazilian village, where the boy's father is thought to reside. At this point Josue and Dora must contend not only with each other, but also with the uncertainties of life on the road.
If Central Station's plot and, indeed, its premise sound overly familiar and predictable -- odd couple overcome initial hostility and aversion to each other, then gradually form a close bond -- Salles's handling of the material is anything but routine. Certainly one way the story works against expectations is that Dora is such an unlikable, shockingly unprincipled character; the viewer constantly anticipates that some ray of goodness will shine through -- and is constantly disappointed.
Interestingly, we hope for a change of heart not only for the sake of Josue, but also for Dora, a woman whose senses of decency and humanity have been buried for so long we fear she -- and by extension, ourselves -- may have lost the ability to unearth them. Montenegro is an actress without vanity; so unselfconscious is her performance that viewers feel they are peeping though a half-open window, catching some silly, sad behavior that would surely embarrass the unsuspecting subject.
Oliveira is equally impressive. A street kid who had never even been inside a movie theater before being cast in the film, he invests Josue with a gentle gravity and underlying sweetness. Salles tested 1,500 youngsters for the part and found no one he felt was right. Walking though the Rio airport he was approached by a nine-year-old shoeshine boy who asked if he could borrow money for lunch, promising to repay the debt. The boy, Oliveira, had such an air of quiet dignity and honesty that Salles asked him to read for the part.
Another touching behind-the-scenes incident occurred during the taping of the movie sequence in which Dora is seated at her table writing letters for paying customers. Not realizing that a movie was being filmed, real people -- not actors -- approached her to write letters for them. The movie's core theme, the universal desire to communicate ideas and feelings to others, could not have received greater validation.
Combining techniques of both documentary and feature filmmaking (Salles's background is in both), Central Station is photographed in muted greens, yellows and browns, but with an unexpected crispness to the images. Inside the cavernous train station Salles favors an unusually shallow focus, augmented by constant background activity that serves to create an artistic whirlwind of movement and a sense of dislocation. His film has a documentary's sense of verisimilitude.
Despite its sure direction and affecting performances, Central Station does not wallow in emotion. While that's a plus in many ways, it also serves, oddly enough, to keep the film from being as affecting as it might have been; the story could have evoked considerably more poignancy and piercing sorrow.
But in a calculated move that pays off handsomely, the picture's remarkable power is reserved for the end, when the intertwining themes coalesce in an extraordinarily satisfying and stirring way. Central Station not only addresses the nature of relationships and the individual's responsibility to other people, but also reveals beyond a shadow of a doubt that communication and human interaction are as essential for existence as food and water, oxygen and light. Life is little more than a collection of lost souls unless we learn to reach out -- and to accept when someone reaches back.
Directed by Walter Salles. With Fernanda Montenegro, Vinicius de Oliveira and Marilia Pera.