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Central Station

Loners young and old

By Roy Rodenstein

Directed by Walter Salles Jr.

Written by Marcos Bernstein, Joao Emanuel Carneiro, Walter Salles Jr.

With Fernanda Montenegro, Marilia Pera, Vinicius de Oliveira

Central Station is a small story of a woman and a boy, whose lives harbor a great void. The woman leads a routine and cynical life, working for the post office in Rio’s Central Station and taking the standing-room-only train home to her empty apartment. The boy and his mother are in Rio de Janeiro, when she is struck down by a bus, and he is left alone to search for the father who abandoned him. Does this set-up sound predictable and manipulative? It is, but it’s easily one of the best shamelessly manipulative movies I have ever seen.

The woman is Dora, played by Fernanda Montenegro in a performance that has garnered several awards and nominations. Dora is a post-office clerk who also writes letters for those who can’t write their own. This helpfulness is a front, however, to what Dora does with the letters after they are written. In a homey, hilariously candid scene we see Dora and her friend Irene (Marilia Pera) go over the day’s letters and decide on their fate. Pleas written to deadbeat fathers don’t stand a chance of being mailed. Irene doesn’t think they should intervene, but Dora overrules her -- the sender is better off without the deadbeat.

Into this mix comes Josue (Vinicius de Oliveira), whose mother had asked Dora to send a letter to Josue’s drunkard father. When Josue’s mother is killed, he hangs around the train station bawling, under the taunting glare of grown men. Dora takes him in, but not before each of them pretends to be too good for each other. At first, Dora tries to unload the kid at a seemingly nice institution, but Irene guilt-trips her into rescuing him, in a vibrant, realistically madcap scene. At this point, Josue and Dora are bound for a road trip.

The movie’s story is small in that it achieves a strong sense that the two are nothing in the hustle and bustle of the world, and no one but Irene would notice if they fell off the face of the earth. The bustle of Central Station contrasts strikingly with the plentiful scenes of the wide-open Brazilian countryside, dusty and beautiful. Passage is hitched on trucks full of country-worn people singing to pass the time and the loneliness. This middle segment made me feel that I need to revisit Brazil, and did it more strongly than any tourist ad showing Rio’s perfect beaches could have done.

Dora and Josue experience various little road-trip adventures as they seek out Josue’s father. There is the trucker who seems quite fond of them and gives them a ride. There are the quirky religious processions in tiny towns. Dora even sets up shop at a fair as a remote branch of the post office, with a lovely mixture of young and old townspeople employing her letter-writing services. Eventually, the road-trippers reach the town where, they hope, Josue’s father is to be found. The town, it turns out, is one of those hives of prefabricated houses. Though all the streets look the same, there is the hope that at least this place is safe from the everyday brutality the larger cities engender.

What boy and woman find in the town is not exactly what they expected. Predictable and manipulative, these late scenes nevertheless feel fresh, with Salles beautifully commanding a wistful mood, supported by natural performances all around. Although Montenegro is outstanding throughout, her final scene is unforgettable, on a par with any acting job I saw in 1998. The movie’s music, as well, is thoroughly enjoyable. Unlike recent movies such as Next Stop Wonderland, where Brazilian tunes overpowered the film, this film expertly makes understated use of multiple rhythms. Though Central Station follows the beaten track, its execution is so fervent as to make watching it a richly enjoyable experience.