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Central Station / Central do Brasil (1998)  

Country: Brazil
Director: Walter Salles

Fernanda Montenegro - Dora
Marília Pêra - Irene
Soia Lira - Ana
Vinícius de Oliveira - Josué
Matheus Nachtergaele - Isaías
Caio Junqueira - Moisés

Dora is a cynical woman, her moral nerves and compassion having burnt out a long time ago. People of her kind populate big spooky old houses in neighbourhoods, giving generations of children endless inspiration for witch stories and bogeymen. In cash-strapped Brazil (films from such countries always manages to soak their fabric with the general poverty of their environment), she supplements her living by writing letters for a generally illiterate population, at her spot in Rio de Janeiro's central station.

Not that she actually posts the letters. Dora takes bitter delight in deciding what is worthy enough to be delivered and what gets torn up and thrown into garbage. She mocks the hopes and dreams on the paper, confirming her conviction that humanity is made up of stupid and useless people. She shares the letters' contents like gossip with her neighbour Irene, who generally disapproves of her practise but cannot resist the temptation of voyeurism into other people's lives. And among those letters, is one written for Ana and her young son Josué, who wants to see his estranged father. However, a sudden accident sets young Josué adrift in the world, who decides to seek out his father on his own. Almost against her own will, Dora accompanies the nine-year-old, and discovers to her shock the stirrings of humanity that she thought she had divested a long time ago. Together they travel to remote northeast Brazil, in what looks and feels like the end of the world.

Call it a road movie if you like - not surprisingly, it's a journey both of the body and the mind. But it's a movie that uses that concept as a vehicle to explore other ideas, such as faith. Actually, I've never noticed it before, but faith of all kinds populate this film - especially that of the religious kind. At one point in the movie, Dora and Josué hitch a ride on a truck carrying white-garbed religious pilgrims, whose presence amuses Dora's cynicism but at the same time unsettles her. Though Dora has a crucifix in her apartment, it seems more like a decoration rather than anything religious. But her contact with Josué changes her - his naiveté and his fierce determination inspires her. Although she grumbles and rails against the young boy's convictions, and tries her best to educate the boy in the ways of the "real" world with all its pitfalls and traps, she herself begins to find regain her faith in people and herself. The recovery of her humanity gives her hurt (in one scene where she opens her heart), but having found hope again, she entreats Josué and also herself never to forget.

The cinematography and scenes successfully brings to life the Catholicism and poverty that permeates the fabric of this film. In countries where a massive percentage of the population are in poverty, and help from secular authority is patchy at best, religion provides the only comfort for many. I also always feel somewhat sweaty after watching South American films, since given the climate, no one escapes the day without a shirt sticking to their sweaty backs - I don't think I even saw anyone taking a bath either in this film. The performances are excellent, with Vinícius de Oliveira bringing to life the cheeky bravado of young Josué who charms and exasperates Dora, herself played with crusty perfection by Fernanda Montenegro. Rather than portraying an adult-child relationship, theirs is more like a friendship of equals, where they cuss, argue and console each other as friends would. Josué is almost like a Christ-child, the analogy of him teaching salvation and hope to Dora, a lost soul, and his father being a carpenter and his brothers possessing Biblical names. It's a sentimental journey, but done with such gusto and strength that celebrates life and humanity to touch the cynical heart.

Eden Law

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