A sensitive art film of the old school, Walter Salles’ “Central Station” is a melancholy Brazilian road movie shot through with gently stressed cultural commentary. Strongly reminiscent of the work of Vittorio De Sica, with whom current producer Arthur Cohn worked several times, this handsomely crafted study of a search for family connections and, in a larger sense, personal and national hope, doesn’t quite manage the climactic emotional catharsis at which it aims, but will involve and move most viewers nonetheless. Well received at its Sundance world preem and set for competition in Berlin, this will be a solid specialized attraction for discerning audiences internationally.
Salles’ first feature, the 1995 “Foreign Land,” was one of the top Brazilian pics in recent years and played widely on the fest circuit. A former documaker, helmer here sets a highly intimate story about the often troubled journey of a young boy and an aging woman against the backdrop of a country in transition. While well judged and credibly played, the film drops dollops of meaning that are, if anything, rather too carefully and gingerly planted, leaving nothing to chance in a work that at least partly means to be open to accident and the randomness of human experience.
Vibrant, unusual opening sees Dora (Fernanda Montenegro), a dour, disagreeable-looking older woman, writing letters for a succession of customers at a little stand in Rio de Janeiro’s teeming central railway station. Among Dora’s patrons, who are members of Brazil’s poor and illiterate class, is a woman whose 9-year-old son, Josue (Vinicius de Oliveira), wants to meet the father he has never known. But after dictating two letters to the father, who is said to live somewhere far to the north, the mother is struck by a bus and killed, leaving the stranded Josue to wander aimlessly around the train station.
Although Dora is the opposite of a kindly, maternal old woman – she considers most of her customers “trash” and systematically throws out most of the letters she writes even though she’s been paid to compose and mail them – she feels she has no choice but to take the boy home, at least for the night. Dora lives in a cramped apartment overlooking the train tracks, and she often spends her evenings with her neighbor friend Irene (Marilia Pera), going through the purgatory drawer of undelivered letters and debating which, if any, to actually send.
To resolve Josue’s dilemma, Dora places him with people who purportedly specialize in finding foreign adoptive parents. But when Irene tells her that their real business is selling kids who are then killed for their organs, Dora daringly rescues Josue and whisks him on board a bus.
Even though Dora turns out to have a speck of feeling for her charge due to the fact that her own mother died when she was his age, she has no intention of assuming true responsibility for Josue. Trying but failing to ditch him at a roadside stop, she hitches a ride for them on a truck driven by a religious man who surprisingly inspires Dora’s latent romantic yearn-ings.
Left once again to their own devices, Dora and Josue make their way farther across the scrubby, increasingly dusty landscape on a truck carrying white-garbed worshippers. After one attempt to locate the boy’s father goes for naught, the film delivers its biggest set piece as the pair find themselves in the middle of an enormous rural religious pilgrimage. Penniless, Dora thinks she’s reached the end of the road, but in an entrepreneurial burst, Josue suggests that she begin writing letters again, and Dora receives a windfall from the devout who are anxious to send missives to saints.
Journey’s end comes at an enormous mass housing development on the new economic frontier, and even if Dora and Josue don’t achieve the sought-after resolution to their quest, they find a viable one that might suffice. Understated ending appears intended to create more of an emotional swell than it does, as it seems both muted and overly calculated.
But then, the entire film feels a tad too cautious and minutely controlled. The land-voyage format and entirely on-location lensing approach pay homage to the neo-realist/Cinema Novo tradition, but Salles’ fastidious style doesn’t allow any spontaneity to creep into his exquisitely composed frames and concentrated dramatic scenes. As a living mural of life across a certain section of Brazil, pic hardly lacks for interesting things to observe and absorb, but its somewhat airless quality prevents it from fully realizing its potential in its hallowed genre.
All the same, the film is affecting and pointedly unsentimental in its portrayal of the often grudging relationship between the gruff, callused Dora and Josue, who only abstractly grasps the importance of the search they’ve undertaken and doesn’t realize, as the audience does, that its result will determine whether he will join the ranks of the country’s millions of street kids or manage to get a shot in life through a family connection.
Long one of Brazil’s leading stage and screen actresses, Montenegro carries the film su-perbly with her portrait of gritty strength being worn down to a state of tattered vulnerability, while newcomer de Oliveira, a shoeshine boy who won the role over 1,500 other aspirants, is engagingly natural and happily doesn’t beg for viewer sympathy.
On a precise but restrained symbolic level, “Central Station” speaks in a cautiously hopeful manner about the possibilities for Brazil’s future, suggesting that the deep scars left by the social ills of the recent past might somehow be survived and surmounted by a creative union of the old and the new Brazils.
Film is immaculate technically, with outstanding widescreen lensing by Walter Carvalho. Script by Joao Emanuel Carneiro and Marcos Bernstein, based on an idea by Salles, won grants from the Sundance Institute and NHK as well as from the French Ministry of Culture.