Often, the image of Brazil is related with ultra-rich, world-famous soccer players, top models with perfect bodies and everlasting street samba carnivals. Yet, there is another Brazil, the real Brazil, whose picture of poverty, crime, homelessness and disillusion does not see that appealing.
This is the aspect of Brazilian life captured by the acclaimed Brazilian director Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries”), made into a realistic story and adapted for the big screen. Using Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neo-realistic approach, Salles portrays the life of the poor and the working class in his Academy Award-nominated and Golden Globe- winning 1998 drama, “Central Station” (Central do Brasil”).
Even though “Central Station” is a relatively low-budget production and never reached the top of the box office in the United States (unlike in Latin America and Europe), the directing and the acting of this film are so masterfully executed that the feature surely captures the hearts of the viewers and remains forever in their minds.
The story is about the unusual yet meaningful and accidental friendship between the impoverished, retired schoolteacher turned letter writer Dora (Fernanda Montenegro “The House of Sand,” “The Hour of the Star”) and the 9-year-old orphan Josue (newcomer Vinicius de Oliveira). After Josue’s mother is run over by a bus in front of Central Station (Rio de Janeiro’s major train hub), the otherwise mean, irresponsible and stingy spinster Dora (she tears to pieces most of the letters she has written to her illiterate clients) reluctantly feeds the orphaned boy, gives him shelter in her shabby tenement and heads with him to the Brazilian Northeast (Nordeste), where his alcoholic father lives.
All those actions don’t turn her into saint overnight, for at first she tries to sell the child to an underground businesswoman whose ultimate goal is to sell children’s organs instead of giving the orphans up for adoption to wealthy families overseas, as she initially promises Dora.
Josue’s initial attitude toward the “good Samaritan” Dora is rather cynical as well, for he sharply criticizes, with childlike honesty, her state of being an old maid, her drinking habit and her tendency to lie and steal. It is, in fact, the life victimization they encounter along the road to the northeast that makes them grow closer and develop an unbreakable bond.
True to the principles of neo-realism, Salles turns his back on Hollywood- friendly special effects, unbelievable story twists, happy endings and deus-ex-machina cop outs. It’s not that Josue’s mother will be able to jump the bus and remain alive. It’s not that Dora will curse the boy at one moment and in the next she will hand him the key to a Mercedes. It’s not that Dora will ever leave her state of poverty or Josue’s father will give up alcoholism and become a caring parent. It’s not that Cesar the truck driver will fall in love with Dora, marry her and give his truck to Josue, whose dream is to become a truck driver himself.
Fernanda Montenegro is so convincing in portraying the common-life Dora that people may question whether this less-than-attractive 60ish letter writer on the screen is really the first Latin American actress to win an Academy Award for best female lead, and whether she is the one to be offered the position of the Brazilian minister of culture.
Thanks to her humbleness and naturalness on the screen, Montenegro gives the performance of her career, alongside her real-life daughter, Fernanda Torres, in “The House of Sand” and opposite Josue Dumont in “The Hour of the Star.” Her much younger “Central Station” co-star Vinicius de Oliveira is a real-life Josue, for he used to be a homeless shoe shiner before director Salles, faithful to his neo-realistic approach, selected him to act in the film. Starring opposite Montenegro was a tremendous break in the young Vinicius’ life, for he is still a good friend of the actress and is also an aspiring film director. It seems that his life story is more Hollywood-like than the film itself.
Marilia Pera (“Pixote”) and Matheus Nachtergaele (“City of God”) contribute to the overall quality of the feature with their performances, as Dora’s best friend – the big-mouthed Irene – and Josue’s half-brother, Isaiah, respectively. Despite their off-screen fame, they are still convincing in portraying poverty-stricken, real-life people. In order to be fully realistic, Salles goes so far as to have Montenegro ’s commenting on the film preside over the feature presentation in lieu of some fancy soundtrack song or even the dialogue between the characters.
This film defies all Hollywood recipes for a movie – this is exactly where its uniqueness and charm lie. “Central Station” is the perfect type of film for people who want to see how life really is.