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"Central Station" runs on schedule

By Peter Keough

DECEMBER 28, 1998:  Don't take taxis, the old woman advises the motherless boy in her charge. Take the bus -- buses always take the same route, but they never get lost. Brazilian director Walter Salles's earnest and efficient tearjerker Central Station, a favorite for a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination, is the kind of movie that takes the bus. Sentimental but with the kind of restraint Hollywood could learn from, it pushes all the familiar buttons but with such slickly neo-realistic style, such detached and exacting detail, and such a masterful performance at its heart, that passengers are grateful for the ride.

That performance is from veteran Brazilian actress Fernanda Montenegro. She plays Dora, a retired teacher with a lived-in satchel of a face who makes ends meet by writing letters for the illiterate at the Rio de Janeiro railway terminal of the title. An opening montage showing her customers venting their souls, thirsting for the power of the word (many of them are actual denizens of the station), suggests another appeal the profession has for her. Although she demonstrates little emotion beyond distaste as she jots down their outpourings, she later takes the letters home to her cramped apartment and shares them with her friend Irene (Marilia Pêra), a far more amusing pastime than offered by her antique black-and-white TV. With Olympian disdain, she pierces the illusions of the correspondents and, like one of the Fates, decides which letters shall go into the wastebasket, which into the drawer to be mailed "later."

One of those consigned to the latter begins ominously, "Dear Jesús, You were the worst thing that ever happened to me." It's from a plucky single mother with a sullen 10-year-old in tow who's trying to track down the drunkard who left her. She claims it's because their son, Josué (Vinicius de Oliveira), wants to see him. Dora confides to Irene that the woman really wants to see the crumb-bum herself, but all that becomes moot when the woman heads back to Dora's stand the next day to soften her missive's rhetoric and is flattened by a bus.

Dora is drawn to the motherless Josué, partly from moribund compassion but mostly from greed. The deceptively avuncular Pedrão (Otávio Augusto), who's shown in one brutal allusion to The Bicycle Thief pursuing and dispatching a shoplifter, offers her a tidy sum to give Josué to a local adoption agency, which, he claims, puts kids in wealthy homes in the United States and Europe.

Indeed it does, but as Dora learns after splurging on a new TV, the kids are sent to those homes in pieces -- the agency murders its wards and collects on their donated organs. Her conscience spurred, Dora rescues Josué and flees with him to search the countryside for his father.

Hers seems an abrupt conversion, but Montenegro conveys it with such matter-of-fact annoyance and determination that you don't doubt her for an instant. Neither is her bonding with the waif mawkish or overtly manipulative. Far from the massed faces and bodies of the city in the bleak vacancy of the rural landscape, Montenegro is nuanced and gritty as Dora airs out her soul, allowing herself to feel at first affection for her companion, then fierce love and loyalty as they scramble for money, hitch rides, bicker and embrace, and, of course, take the bus as they track down one dead-end lead after another.

Do they find Jesús? Salles doesn't underplay the religious subtext of his tale, and the results range from the clumsily obvious to the unexpectedly moving. Naming Josué's stepbrothers Moisés and Isaias and making his father a carpenter don't add much subtlety, but footage of an actual candlelit festival of the Blessed Virgin evokes the primitive and threatening extremes of the spirit, the convulsive and incandescent longing for salvation. And in one of the film's more heartbreaking moments, Dora attempts with a borrowed lipstick to pretty herself up and woo a burly, born-again trucker who gives them a ride.

For the most part, though, the religious motifs -- like Salles's half-baked symbolism of a wooden top and a lost handkerchief -- serve only as window dressing for his limpid road movie, distracting from the bereft scenery outside and the even more harrowing faces of the pair passing through it. Central to the film is its universal tale of faith, of striving and persisting in love before the inevitability of solitude and death. When Salles sticks to that itinerary, Dora and Josué's stations of the cross prove a ritual worth following.

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