‘Central Station’ (‘Central do Brasil’) — A Country Searching for Its Innocence

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Vinicius de Oliveira & Fernanda Montenegro
Vinicius de Oliveira & Fernanda Montenegro

A dark-skinned boy dashes from a railroad station in Rio de Janeiro after having stolen a woman’s purse. The two bosses who “run” the station catch up to him along the train tracks, which the boy had used to make good his escape.

We see the trio in long shot, the voice of the thief heard faintly over the clamor of iron on rail, much as we would experience it in real life. We barely make out what he tells the two men, one of whom points a gun to the nervous thief’s head.

After a brief moment, we are able to discern the boy’s words as he begs for his life, but the two men are unmoved by his pleas. We next hear the muffled sound of a revolver and the body of the boy going limp over the tracks, where he is summarily executed for his pitiable act of desperation.

In another part of Rio, a beautiful middle-aged woman dives off a rock formation in the center of Guanabara Bay. As she nonchalantly swims away, the soundtrack blasts out a lilting bossa nova beat, while the sun rises slowly over the panoramic horizon in all its Technicolor glory.

Both of these scenes take place in the same controversial metropolis — Rio de Janeiro — and about the same time frame. But one would hardly know it from the two treatments given above.

As Charles Dickens once so pungently described the tense atmosphere surrounding pre-Revolutionary Paris, in his classic novel A Tale of Two Cities, it is indeed the best of times and the worst of times for Rio de Janeiro, our modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, undergoing at the time just such a turbulent period of crime and violence amid the bountiful plenty. Only, this tale is of a city with two polarizing viewpoints.

The first scene depicted above comes early on in director Walter Salles Jr.’s masterly Central Station (known in Brazil as Central do Brasil, 1998), the winner of over 50 international movie awards. It’s a jolting one, to be sure, but we do not sense the wave of disgust we should feel towards it until much later, when the cumulative effect of other equally compelling images begin to build and unfold, one after the other, so that we are numbed by the many harsh actions brought to bear upon the wretched lives of Brazil’s neglected under-classes.

The second scene occurs early on as well, but it appears in Bruno Barreto’s overblown comedy Bossa Nova (1999), a movie that tries desperately to hold on to a highly fantasized picture of beachfront Rio, as seen through rose-colored lenses — which is probably the way most cariocas would like their favorite haunt to be viewed.

Both Brazilian films received wide circulation in the United States, and both generated an unusually large amount of critical commentary from reviewers and moviegoers. But considering the economic and social climate of Brazil in general — and of Rio de Janeiro in particular — it behooves us to revisit the award-winning Central Station in the harsh light of the country’s previous state of combativeness.

The Plot Thickens

The story of Central Station begins at a railroad station of the same name, that serves as a drop-off point for poor illiterates from the Northeast. They come to the overcrowded urban center in search of a better life for themselves and for their families. Many of these new arrivals go to retired schoolteacher Dora (played by legendary stage and screen actress, Fernanda Montenegro), whose little writing booth is located within the dingy bowels of the train station itself.

Dora is a surly older woman, her outward sarcasm and gruffness masking a lifetime of loneliness and loss. Her very name means “pain”, and she has plenty of it to spare; it can also mean “to adore” or “to love” — something Dora has certainly lacked in her life, but which she gains a full measure of towards the end.

She serves as the Northeasterners’ makeshift analyst and confessor, transcribing their thoughts, dreams, desires, and disappointments into elaborate handwritten letters, few of which ever get mailed.

Soia Lira & Vinicius de Oliveira
Soia Lira & Vinicius de Oliveira

On this particular day, a mother, Ana (Sôia Lira), and her nine-year-old son drop by the booth. Dora dutifully takes down the mother’s terse discourse, which is full of blistering rebuke for her philandering husband Jesus (!), who has abandoned her to take up with another woman.

The next day the mother returns with her boy, but this time her heart brims over with forgiveness and compassion for having offended her irresponsible spouse. She dictates another letter to Dora — a kinder and gentler one, for certain — which the schoolteacher then proceeds to write down, in between condescending looks at the pair.

Satisfied with the results, Ana pays her fee and leaves, only to be trampled to death moments later by a city bus while attempting to traverse a busy downtown street.

*          *          *

One of the more arresting aspects of this film is the way in which director Salles takes supposedly disconnected references from American and Brazilian cinema — in this instance, Susana Amaral’s A Hora da Estrela (The Hour of the Star, 1985), based on the 1977 novel by the late émigré author Clarice Lispector — and repositions them subliminally, so as to link relevant thematic material in the eyes of the beholder.

Here, Salles reminds us of the shock we felt when, at the end of A Hora da Estrela, a naive Northeasterner named Macabéa (the wonderful Marcélia Cartaxo) is killed by a speeding car just as she, too, is crossing the street — at the exact moment that the purposelessness of her dull life in São Paulo is given some meaning.

It’s almost as if the plot line of the underrated Amaral piece is continued in that of Central Station, but with a totally different actress assuming the role of the doomed mother. This notion is doubly compounded in the not-inconsequential casting of Fernanda Montenegro, who, in A Hora da Estrela, played Macabéa’s caustic landlady.

*          *          *

Dejected and alone, Ana’s surviving son, Josué (Vinicius de Oliveira), goes back to the train station, the only real home he knows, in the blind hope of finding his long-departed father, who is rumored to be living somewhere in the Northeast — or so he’s been led to believe.

After several attempts to rid herself of the pestering lad, including selling him outright to a suspicious couple for the price of a new television set — a vicious indictment of Brazil’s consumptive consumerism, and a knowing poke at Judas’ own betrayal of the innocent Christ — the reluctant Dora is sufficiently prodded into taking Josué on an extended “road trip” through the arid backwater regions of the country, a journey that will change both of their lives forever.

This return of the Northeastern native to his place of origin, after having suffered a never-ending series of indignities, among them high unemployment, social injustice, humiliation, bias, discrimination, lack of educational opportunity, and economic stagnation in the South, has been borne out in the publication, dated June 2003 by the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), or IBGE for short, of the year 2000 Census results.

The Census conclusively documented the changing migratory patterns of the impoverished nordestino (“Northeasterner”) as, not surprisingly, having departed the “progressive” Southeast for his allegedly backward, underdeveloped homeland.

According to the IBGE, more than 36 percent of the nearly 5.2 million Northeastern migrants that moved, in 1995, to Brazil’s Southernmost states had, by the end of 2000, actually left the area to return to their place of origin.

The movie’s illustration of this reverse exodus, shown as the search for individual identity as well as for one’s long-lost family connections, is a most perceptive and revealing one by the director, in view of these socioeconomic findings.

In Walter’s Words

Walter Salles Jr. (theeveningclass.blogspot.com)

Salles expressed it best himself in a 1998 interview for Sony Pictures, the American distributor for his multinational film project:

“The question of the search is really important in this film. We’re talking about the woman who searches for her lost feelings and a boy who searches for his father.

“Since the Greeks, we’ve always been concerned with the idea of getting back to the place where we come from — to try to understand who we are. This is the boy’s plight, but what the two of them discover is not only the family at the end of the film, but the importance of companionship, friendship and understanding.”

The director went on to note: “There are several themes I wanted to explore, but the main [one] was the desire that people have to communicate — to express their emotions and feelings — and sometimes their inability to do this.

“Dora has lost the capacity to communicate with everyone, including herself. She has lost her feelings and cannot respond to any desire anymore. She leads such a cynical, self-contained life that she is incapable of sharing with others — and that includes sharing [the] possibilities that life can bring you.

“When she is confronted with this nine-year-old boy that just lost his mother, she is obliged — [much] against her will — to give up the security of her egotistical confined existence. For the first time, at the age of 67, the boy brings to her the possibility of living life to its fullest. The film is about the ability to start all over again at that advanced age.”

As another Dickensian creation, the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, once so eloquently embodied, we are never too old to change our desultory outlook on life. Indeed, just minutes before she meets her final fate, even Josué’s hard-pressed mother Ana is able to practice a rudimentary form of Christian charity towards her mischievous mate. Only the poor thief at the beginning of the film is deprived of any pardon for his sin — a rather cruel commentary by Salles on Brazil’s enduring “vigilante justice” mentality.

After having discovered his genuine Northeastern roots, the young Josué now finds that Dora has left him, and gone home to her Rio apartment for good. He runs down the empty street, in a vain attempt to head off his friend at the pass. It’s another cinematic moment, right out of George Stevens’ Western classic Shane — only there is no cry from the child for the title character to come back, just a fleeting look of despair that, more precisely, slowly gives way to one of hope fulfilled.

Similarly, as Dora boards the bus that will take her back to face her errant ways, the tears she sheds are not those of regret but for something more concrete and life-affirming: the rediscovery of her own lost purpose in life, and of her renewed capacity for love. She, too, has learned that there exists a spiritual core to her being, one that she carries deep within herself and that resides inside the human heart — the real locus and crux of Central Station.

Director Salles comments again: “The film expresses a desire to find another country, one that may be simpler and less glorious than previously announced, but aims to be more human and compassionate. A country where the possibility of a certain innocence still remains.”

The overpowering urge in all humans for an identity, a family, a home, and a permanent place in this trouble-ridden society, no matter how tiny or insignificant it may seem, is of paramount importance to our lives. We are all deserving of a break once in a while, of a second chance at bettering our own pitiable condition, so Salles seems to be saying.

And he has certainly proved it with this splendid, post-Cinema Novo masterpiece. No other Brazilian film-work of the past 30 years has earned as many impressive honors and notices as this landmark motion-picture achievement. The emotion this film has generated in viewers is both heartfelt and true.

A final thought from Salles: “This film is about a woman who learns the importance of sharing in life and the importance of having common experiences. That common experience is something that’s so precious and so unique. When people are moved by similar emotions, then it’s as if a small miracle has happened again and again and again.”

Central Station, which began life as a small miracle, has grown to become an essential part of the audiovisual library of understanding that catalogs the complex nature of all Brazilians. For film lovers, it not only encapsulates the sum total of their collectively shared movie experiences but, in the sometimes coarse language of Cinema Novo, continues to present modern audiences with the pathetic “true face of Brazil.”

About the Production

Upon its release, the film drew raves from the international press for its earnestly felt performances and exceptionally well-written screenplay by Salles and his two scriptwriters, João Emanuel Carneiro and Marcos Bernstein.

Fernanda Montenegro
Fernanda Montenegro

It is extremely well acted by every member of the cast, most notably Ms. Montenegro, who has masterfully allowed us a look into the very soul of this seemingly heartless, embittered old woman. Her emotionally satisfying transformation at the end takes place organically and, as commented on by the late American actor Gregory Peck, is movingly achieved without undue sentiment.

Eleven-year-old Vinicius de Oliveira is Josué, and he’s a marvelous find. Although a non-professional at the time, he plays the part of the lost boy with total conviction, as well as perfectly capturing the frustration children have with adults who think they know better. He instinctively sees through Dora’s pretenses, and easily knocks down her defenses, with a carefully placed stare or a sharply worded reproof — an ironic duplication of his namesake’s breaking down of the impenetrable walls of Jericho.

Marilia Pêra (the prostitute in Hector Babenco’s harrowing Pixote) plays Dora’s best friend Irene, Othon Bastos is the born-again-Christian truck driver César, and Mattheus Nachtergaele and Caio Junquiera are Josué’s half-brothers, Isaías and Moisés.

The frequent biblical names that resonate throughout, once common to the older class of immigrants who first arrived in Brazil from Western Europe, serve the director’s aim of returning to an established set of moral guidelines, many of which were left behind (as Josué himself was) when the Northeasterners forsook their parched lands to go South.

Religious iconography is abundantly used as well, most memorably in the evocation of the inverted pietà figure, with Josué gently cradling the exhausted Dora in his arms; in the sequence of Dora’s delirium in the little church; and in the revelation by Josué with his siblings that their father Jesus will one day return home (“He’ll come back. He will come back.”)

The entire film is gorgeously photographed by Walter Carvalho, the director of cinematography; and the jazz-influenced, chamber-like film score, by composers Antonio Pinto and Jaques Morelenbaum, provides the ultimate in musical minimalism: it’s spare and lean, much like the story itself, which, incidentally, is remarkably similar to the circumstances of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s early life in the Northeastern state of Pernambuco.

Central do Brasil (Central Station, 1998)

Produced by Martine de Clermont-Tonnerre, Arthur Cohn, Donald Ranvaud; directed by Walter Salles; written by Salles, Joao Emanuel Carneiro, and Marcos Bernstein; music by Antonio Pinto and Jaques Morelenbaum; cinematography by Walter Carvalho; edited by Felipe Lacerda; starring Fernanda Montenegro, Vinicius de Oliveira, Soia Lira, Marilia Pera, Othon Bastos, Otavio Augusto, Caio Junqueira, and Matheus  Nachtergaele; 106 min. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics (USA), Europa Filmes (Brazil).

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

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3 thoughts on “‘Central Station’ (‘Central do Brasil’) — A Country Searching for Its Innocence

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