CENTRAL STATION (Central do Brasil) (Brazil-France, 1998) ***
A hybrid? Not at all. You get an original, un-gimmicky, un-icky, un-cliched, attention-holding, touching film that opens your eyes on major aspects of the human condition in Brazil and on that country's people and life.
Obviously, the movie has been appreciated, with awards and/or applause at several festivals, including the top prize at the Berlin Festival. It is also a contender in the best foreign film category at the 1999 Oscars.
Rio de Janeiro's Central train station where 300,000 people move about each day, is a microcosm of urban society. The station looks to me (but I may be wrong) like the hub of local trains rather than long-distance travel. Also, the majority of the people we see are working class, low income or no income Cariocas, cheaply clad -- a far cry from the well-dressed crowds in North American commuter trains. (To anticipate comments, I do know that, as I write this in cold February, it is 90 degrees in Rio, and people are in shirt-sleeves, but shabbiness prevails at the station by any standards).
The mobs are busy rushing into the trains. Many younger men jump into the wagons through open windows. The place is also a hive of makeshift stores and stands. Early into the movie there's a horrendous scene. A man who has lifted something from a shop is pursued. Two cops catch up with him. They take his loot, and, without thinking twice about it, one of the lawmen puts a bullet in the fellow's head. Nothing is made of this. Life is cheap.
Dora, in her mid-to-late 60s, and no beauty --to put it mildly--is a retired elementary school teacher. To make ends meet, in the cavernous station she has a table on which she writes letters that many illiterates dictate to her and gets also paid for putting on stamps later and mailing the envelopes. But, tough, brusque and caustic, the scribe is also a scam artist.
When she gets to her dismal apartment by the tracks, she brings along her daily bag of letters that she's supposed to mail, and shows them to her friend Irene. Irene may be her roommate or her neighbor, it's not clear. Clearly though, she is the only friend in Dora's depressing life. Irene, younger, jolly and a still nice-looking fading beauty, is probably a prostitute, though this is not elaborated.
At home, Dora perhaps selects a few envelops that she mails. For sure, she tears up many of them and puts the rest in drawers,where they probably remain forever.
Among her customers is a woman with her 9-year old boy Josue. Her husband, a drunkard, left her long ago. She want him back, for herself and for their fatherless child. That woman is killed by a bus right outside the station. The plight of the child is even more tragic if you are aware of the horrendous problem of millions of street-children in Brazil. Their survival is a tragedy; many even get killed by the police for no reason.
Soon, hard-as-nails Dora takes streetwise and sullen Josue to her place. Her unexpected kindness is undone when she sells the boy to a shabby "agency" which supposedly supplies children to adoptive parents abroad.
Dora returns home with a new color TV set, on which, with subtle, symbolic, irony, we see only black-and-white programs. But an aghast Irene tells her that the agency is a fake, that the kids will be killed for their organs. Dora rushes back, kidnaps Josue and in fear of retaliation, flees with him to look for the missing father.
This is where the travels begin. It's more of a road movie than an odyssey since the "adventures" are on a small, intimate rather than a grand scale. The grand scale is only in the vastness of Brazil, the world's fifth largest nation.
The woman and the rebellious Josue take a lot of busses. When hardly solvent or broke they hitch rides in trucks.Most of this is in the "sertao" of the North East, Brazil's thinly populated, often barren outback. (It's a neat reversal of the poor of those areas trudging to the promised land of big cities).
The trip, the landscape, the places seen are harsh. Nothing is paved in this barrenness, except for the main highways. The viewers are given a tour which, like the entire film, is extremely well photographed and uncompromisnly realistic. We are light years away from the commonly pictured touristic Brazil with its fiestas and the thong-wearing beauties of the Copcabana Beach. Credit director Salles's experience as a documentarist. He is objective but has a heart.
While the protagonists gradually, as expected, draw closer to each other, Salles, with much naturalness, avoids sentimentalizing people or places. Yet his eyes and ears are full of quiet sympathy for what, to use Bunuel's title, are Los Olvidados, the forgotten ones who struggle to subsist. The people whom the woman and the child come across, by and large are decent folks who live in squalor. An episode with a nice, warm, older trucker, an Evangelical who, for a brief spell, stirs the woman in Dora, is effortlessly touching. And in a long, spectacular sequence, Dora and Josue find themselves in a throng of pilgrims that go to revere Jesus in acts of hope and of self-consolation.
(One should not, by the way, make too much of names such as Josue (Joshua) and Jesus, the elusive father, nor the fact that Jesus is a sort of carpenter. Symbolism may be present , but with a light touch. Curiously, in the other main candidate for Best Foreign Film Oscar this year ( Life is Beautiful) the woman is called Dora and the child is Josue
The humanity of the Dora-Josue twosome has enormous appeal. She is one of Brazil's top stage actresses -- and light years away from the looks of Sharon Stone in Gloria!) He was a poor shoeshine boy whom the director discovered in an airport. Their performances are so real that the word "acting" never comes into your mind.
What might come to mind is the great Italian film "Stolen Children," as well as its contrast with Central Station, whose poverty makes even the Italian South look relatively wealthy. The most upsetting sight for me, one that encapsulates the movie, is the the picture of a goat in a sertao village. The animal, trying to graze in the barren dust, walks somehow with his two broken front legs. Yet the total movie does not stress grimness. It has its natural quota of positiveness, even unforced humor.