Central Station breathes new life into the ‘curmudgeon meets kid'movie cliché

We've all seen the movie before:

A nasty, middle-aged curmudgeon is forced into close contact with a young child and undergoes a change of heart, becoming a more lovable human being in the process. Beginning with Charlie Chaplin's The Kid in 1921, filmmakers and television programmers around the world have milked this formula from every possible angle. So why sit through it again?

Central Station uses this hackneyed subject matter to take a fresh, documentary-style look at a Third World country, Brazil, that struggles with rapid economic development and to show how the accompanying changes affect ordinary citizens. Winner of the top prize at this year's Berlin Film Festival and a front-runner for next year's Oscar for best foreign film, the movie also chronicles some of the different forms of religious experience popular in that culture and dramatizes the ways in which they change its main characters.

Dora (Fernanda Montenegro) is a retired schoolteacher who now makes a living writing letters for illiterates in Rio de Janeiro's central station, through which 300,000 people pass each day. These missives contain heartfelt messages—declarations of love, pleas for family reunification, urgent requests for money, etc.

Cynical and misanthropic, Dora abuses her client’ trust.

She often neglects to mail their letters without telling them, sometimes for no other reason than that she's in a bad mood. Even though the damage inflicted by her inaction might be enormous, she doesn't care.

A client, who is a single mother with a 7-year-old son named Josué (Vinicius de Oliveira), dictates a letter to the boy's father, pleading that they get back together. Dora tells her not to send it. “That man is a drunk,” she advises. “You don't need him in your life.”

Soon thereafter the young woman is run over by a truck and dies. Josué, who has no one to turn to, hangs out at the station where there are dozens of similar homeless boys. Director Walter Salles and coscreenwriters Emanuel Carneiro and Marcos Bernstein deftly evoke the savagery of this vagabond world. A kid who steals from one of the stores at the station is caught by another shopkeeper and executed, vigilante style. Josué has been thrown into a violent, anarchic urban jungle even worse than our own inner cities, and he doesn't know how to cope.

Dora exploits his situation to her own benefit. Pretending to be his friend, she sells him to what she believes is an illegal adoption agency and uses the proceeds to buy herself a big-screen television set.

When she learns that Josué is, in fact, going to be murdered and his organs sold on the black market in the United States, whatever conscience she has left is pricked into action. At considerable risk she kidnaps him from the agency. As a price has now been put on her head by the underworld, she must leave town quickly. Having no place to go, she agrees to help Josué find his absent father, who's living in one of the recently developed settlements way out in the boondocks.

Dora hasn't suddenly been transformed into a saint. She and the young boy don't get along, and she tries unsuccessfully to abandon him in the middle of nowhere. A kindly truck driver (Othos Baston) takes this quarreling odd couple under wing. An evangelical Protestant, he doesn't smoke or drink. Through him, the filmmakers show there's a network of working-class Protestant converts in recently developed areas who do business with each other and are mutually supportive. Dora is attracted to the truck driver, but when he perceives this, he runs away, leaving the pair once again on their own.

They hook up with some pilgrims to a religious festival centering on the Virgin Mary. To American eyes, its fevered celebrations might appear superstitious and exploitive. There's non-stop chanting, praying, and wailing for miracles fueled by an uncontrolled herd mentality.

Dora, who's never shown a glimmer of spiritual sensibility before, places a handkerchief which used to belong to Josué's mother at the foot of a picture of Our Lady and Jesus. Their fate then takes some radical turns which could be considered divine intervention.

Director Salles has said in interviews he isn't religious. But when he discovered the importance of faith to the marginalized people he was filming, he decided to incorporate its effects into his story and change his character’ motivations accordingly.

The movie shouldn't be interpreted as a carefully thought-out religious allegory despite several significant plot twists that might suggest otherwise. Neither Dora nor Josué ever talk about God. But the profound interior changes each undergoes is obviously influenced by the intense religious atmosphere around them.

Central Station is both a kind of Latin American road movie and a psychological study of two people whose values are put to the test. Its main character’ personal odysseys are linked to the vast economic and cultural changes which capitalism brings to a developing nation like Brazil. The movie is different from other examples of this genre because the filmmakers never forget to engage our intellects and moral sensibilities while tugging on our heart strings.

John Prizer is currently based in Paris.

Central Station is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America.