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Central Station

Review by Eddie Cockrell
Posted 20 November 1998

Central do Brasil   Directed by Walter Salles

Starring Fernanda Montenegro, Marilia Pera,
Vinicius de Oliveira, Soia Lira, Othon Bastos

Written by Joao Emanuel Carneiro and Marcos Bernstein
Based on an original idea by Walter Salles

When this subtly magnificent new movie from Brazil won the coveted Golden Bear award for best film at the 1998 Berlin International Film Festival, many saw the unexpected yet welcomed honor as a continued validation of a more accessible and financially responsible cinema being pioneered for the global marketplace by filmmakers who understand the fundamentals of simple yet elegant dramatic structure and the universality of human emotion. Central Station is performed in the native Portuguese of director Walter Salles, yet its human feelings and command of filmmaking render it a work capable of speaking to audiences in all corners of the earth.

In the bustling train terminal of downtown Rio de Janeiro, 67-year-old desultory ex-teacher Dora (Fernanda Montenegro) works writing brief letters for those wishing to contact loved ones. In the evening she spreads them out on the table of her cramped apartment, deciding with single neighbor Irene (Marilia Pera) which will be thrown away and which will be stuffed into a drawer and eventually mailed -- maybe. Taking uncharacteristic pity on recently orphaned 10-year-old Josue (Vinicius de Oliveira), Dora corrects an disasterous initial decision regarding the boy’s welfare and accompanies him on an ardous journey to the remote Northeast section of Brazil in search of the father Josue’s never met and perhaps an elusive peace of her own.

The same age as her character, Fernanda Montenegro ("our own Gena Rowlands or Giulietta Masina," Salles told one interviewer) hasn’t made a lot of films, preferring to work in theater pieces that inevitably become so successful -- her acclaimed performance in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s "The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant" lasted for three years -- that they prevent her from taking more movie roles. Nevertheless, she found time for Leon Hirszman’s They Don’t Wear Black Tie, which won the Golden Lion at the 1980 Venice Film Festival, and she’s won the best actress award from festivals in Moscow (for Paulo Porto’s Em Familia in 1970), Taormina, Italy (for Arnaldo Jabor’s Tudo Bem in 1977) and Berlin (for Central Station). By turns tough and tender, she brings to Dora a world-weariness made fresh by the sheer tenaciousness of the character; in such scenes as her harrowing rescue of Josue from some unscrupulous types, she seems not at all in control of the valiant side of her nature, and this crusading impulsiveness is both enthralling and endearing.

As integral a part of Brazilian culture as Montenegro has become, the opposite is true of young Vinicius de Oliveira, whom Salles and Cohn discovered shining shoes in the Rio de Janeiro airport and chose over some 1500 hopefuls for the part of Josue. Nearly 10 at the time, he’d never been to the movies but, said Salles, "was a street kid that had the knowledge of what the street means and the difficulties of fighting for survival. But he had not lost his innocence in going through that phase." If this is starting to sound familiar, remember Hector Babenco’s notorioius 1981 Brazilian film Pixote (whose young star was subsequently murdered), which told a much more violent and explicit story of survival on the tough streets -- and also starred Marilia Pera (Irene) as a troubled prostitute.

The film’s award-winning script was developed at the Sundance Institute, after Salles turned over the basic idea to the two young screenwriters. A filmmaker possessed of an uncommonly clear-eyed passion for urgent social issues and seductive production values, he first came to international attention when he segued from documentaries to the provocative Foreign Land (it, too, was photographed by Walter Carvalho, who, in the kinetic, widescreen images of Central Station somehow manages to make Rio and the desolate Northeast section of Brazil simultaneously gritty and slick). The 1995 film sets its story of international intrigue against the ripple effect caused by the disasterous policies of since-impeached president Fernando Collor at the turn of the decade. Since completing Central Station, Salles has partnered again with Daniela Thomas (co-director of Foreign Land) on Midnight (Mia Noche), a 75-minute French co-production developed as part of the "2000 Seen By…" series for the French TV station Arte.

In Swiss-born producer Arthur Cohn, Salles seems to have found a soulmate with a superlative international reputation. No less than five of his productions have earned Oscars (a record), including The Sky Above, the Mud Below (Best Documentary Feature, 1963), The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Best Foreign Language Film, 1963), Black and White in Color (Best Foreign Language Film, 1978), Dangerous Moves (Best Foreign Language Film, 1985) and American Dream (Best Documentary Feature, 1991). If these and the other films he’s produced have anything in common, it is a vigourous but often melancholy concern for dignity in the face of social injustice as well as the quest for freedom from helplessness and the redemption that can come from making and executing hard choices.

As Oscar time approaches, Central Station looms as a film with the power to join that short list of movies nominated in the general categories (Il Postino is the most obvious recent example). Industry reports link Cohn and Salles to a new project to be filmed in Santa Fe, New Mexico; no matter how their new partnership plays out, it has already produced one great movie that will be embraced by audiences all over the world.

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