Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Journey of Redemption

By Devin D. O'Leary

FEBRUARY 15, 1999:  South-of-the-border cinema seems to be the red-headed stepchild of the filmmaking industry. While Asia, Europe and even Africa have had their day in the sun, Mexico, Central and South America have had a devil of a time breaking into the worldwide movie market. Although films such as Like Water For Chocolate do occasionally make a big splash in international waters, the vast majority of Hispanic films remain mired behind the borders of their own country. This is hardly a reflection of the quality of films. Indeed, Mexico, Cuba and other Spanish-speaking nations have produced some of the more interesting filmmakers of the last decade. One has to wonder why films from Italy, France, China and even Hong Kong have been welcomed onto American shores with open arms while southern cinephiles remain persona non grata in our nation's cineplexes.

This year may prove to be a watershed, however, thanks to the stirring efforts of one small film from Brazil. Central Station won Best Film and Best Actress at the 1998 Berlin Film Festival and went on to garner much goodwill at film fests worldwide. In the waning days of 1998, star Fernanda Montenegro nabbed herself Best Actress nods from the National Board of Review and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Buzz on the film hit a fever pitch in January when the Foreign Press Association awarded it two Golden Globes for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actress (Drama). Central Station is Brazil's official entry for the 1998 Academy Awards, and seems to be on the fast track to nab a golden boy or two. While this may not open the floodgates for all Latin American film, it certainly adds some star power to the résumés of at least a few Latino filmmakers.

Central Station is the story of a bitter ex-teacher named Dora (Fernanda Montenegro) who makes a meager living transcribing letters for illiterate Brazilians in Rio's crowded central train station. Every day, Dora listens to the pathetic stories of her clients. Some send letters to husbands in jail. Some beg relatives for money. Some implore faithless lovers to return. Through it all, Dora seems icily unfazed by the teeming humanity surrounding her. At night, Dora paws through the letters and decides--god-like--which deserve to be sent (almost none) and which deserve to be trashed (nearly all).

Dora's emotionally insulated life changes, though, when a young boy's mother is killed near the train station. With nowhere to go and no one to turn to, the young boy (Vinicius de Oliveira) joins the hoards of homeless children clogging Centro do Brasil. In time, Dora grudgingly "adopts" the scrappy Josué and takes him on a cross-country trek to locate his long-lost biological father.

What follows is a leisurely road movie that touches on some deeply humanist issues. Montenegro's Dora is a singular creation--at first a lonely and cynical woman whose humanity has been eroded by the poverty and overcrowding that pervades Rio de Janeiro. In hooking up with Josué, though, she proves that she still has some deep-seeded need to connect with her fellow human beings. To its credit, Central Station never stoops to cutesy manipulation or easy pathos. It could easily be compared to 1997's foreign heart-tugger Kolya--about a crusty old bachelor who is transformed by a sad-eyed orphan. Josué is no heart-melting moppet, however, and Dora bears no thin patina of movie crust. Josué is a tough-minded pre-teen, and Dora spends nearly the entire film being a certified bitch.

Indeed, Central Station makes no quick ploy for audience sympathies. It takes quite a long time to warm to the characters in this slow-burning tear-jerker. Fernanda Montenegro does work some subtle magic here, shifting her character--degree by grudging degree--from callous introvert to caring human. Early scenes of Dora selling Josué off to some black marketeers for a new TV set might be a little off-putting, but viewers are advised to stick it out. A unique and satisfying happy ending is on tap.

The standard road movie template doesn't leave a lot of room for surprise in Central Station. One hardly needs to be reminded that characters on a cross-country quest rarely find exactly what their looking for (a truism that applies to The Wizard of Oz as handily as Apocalypse Now). Naturally, Josué and Dora are less searching for a lost father than they are for their own eroded emotions. Although director Walter Salles (A Grande Arte, Foreign Land) sends his characters down an admittedly well-worn path, he manages to hit some unique and affecting emotional highs. A truckstop encounter in which Dora tests out her withered womanhood with a spent tube of lipstick is a cruel bit of beauty. Another scene in which Dora's heart is awakened at a religious festival in a tiny mountain village makes for some marvelously poetic closure. Central Station travels a difficult, slow-paced emotional road--but persistant viewers will find, in the end, it's a journey packed with humble rewards.

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