Highway of hope

Central do Brasil by Walter Salles traces a spinster’s moving journey of redemption across an unforgiving landscape


Central Station
Walter Salles
1998 (Portuguese, English subtitles), Canal+/MACT Productions/Riofilmes/Videofilms
113 minutes

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

LATAMROB rating: ****

ESCAPE and redemption weave through the work of Walter Salles like the routes of a map, taking the audience to a purer, better place.

In Central do Brasil, as with the Brazilian’s director’s most well known film, The Motorcycle Diaries, the plot is built around a life-changing journey across Latin America’s impoverished and emotionally wanting landscape.

Such journeys appears to have become key metaphors for this young director, to whom personal rediscovery – and the salvation that can result – are both destinations worth heading for. In Central do Brasil, it is the place of departure – the centrepoint from which all journeys begin – that is as important to the storyteller as where his redeemed characters end up.

Salles has spoken of how he understands change occurring in layers, not dramatic revelations, and this approach is as evident in Central do Brasil as it would become later in The Motorcycle Diaries.

This excellent film set in Rio de Janeiro, delivered through careful photography and simple but powerful dialogue, was conceived by Salles himself, a native of the city.

Cynical heart

Central do Brasil tells the story of Dora (Fernanda Montenegro), a lonely spinster whom life has passed by and whose only care is now increasing her meagre pension by working as a typist at Rio’s main railway station. Dora’s clients are unfortunates, people unable to read or write, for whom the outcome of their lives or the fulfilment of their dreams remains dependent upon the faint thread of a line of ink.

It is striking that even when Dora appears poor and jaded, she is not quite as needy as those who, for a few reales, pour out their hearts to the scribe and in the process allow her to enjoy a better lifestyle. It is also clear that the hardships of life for the poor in Brazil portrayed in this movie have taken their toll on Dora’s heart, which has grown as cynical as those who can afford a “morally decent” living in this developing society.

As Dora remains unmoved by the personal dramas lived by each of her clients, an act of God lands her with an opportunity for redemption. A regular client – a woman whose attempts to establish contact with her son’s estranged father – is suddenly and tragically run over outside the station, leaving the only thing of value in her life: her nine-year-old son Josué (Vinícius de Oliveira).

Wise for his age, Josué goes back to Dora to beg her to help him find his father. All he knows is that he is living in a small town in Brazil’s famished north-east – the address on the letter.

Unable to decline the request, Dora takes the child with her and ends up accompanying him in what turns up to be a challenging personal odyssey across a hard landscape chiselled from harsh realities, poverty and the desperation for change.

Typically of Salles, Central do Brasil is not a pamphlet but a mirror of human relations and its moral is universal and not, particularly, specific to Brazil. Yet at the same time the director draws attention to how the human and physical condition that is so unique to Latin America forces people to escape the limitations of their sanitised world.

It is no surprise that this beautiful film received two Oscar nominations (best actress and best foreign movie).

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican journalist