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April 12, 2015

Central do Brasil

by Franz Patrick


Central do Brasil (1998)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Dora (Fernanda Montenegro) is a former schoolteacher who writes letters for illiterate people, for a small fee, at the main train station in Rio de Janeiro. Two customers who make an impression are Ana (Soia Lira) and her son, Josué (Vinícius de Oliveira), wishing to send a letter to Jesus, a drunkard of a husband who has never met his son. A few minutes after their second meeting, Ana is involved in a traffic accident and passes away. This leaves Josué without a guardian and is forced to live in the streets and fend for himself. Despite her resistance, Dora decides to help the boy eventually by escorting him across the country to look for his father.

There are a dime a dozen movies about a child and an adult, often strangers to one another, forming an unexpected symbiosis but very few are on the level of “Central do Brasil,” directed by Walter Salles, because the film touches upon and explores several journeys specific to the characters, their inner monologues, and the land they inhabit. On the surface, it is about two people on a road with the hopes of meeting a goal but just below its sclera is the importance of making memories and why looking back should be welcomed instead of disdained or feared.

The screw that locks each element in place is Dora. Although she is capable of good deeds, she is a complete person in that she has her share of shortcomings. Just when she leads us to believe that she cares only for the child’s well-being, she takes us through corridors that are unimaginable, choices that most of us, given that we are placed in her shoes, would likely not even consider. Her actions communicate plenty, from her determination to make money out of a situation to her attitude about promises and taking responsibility.

de Oliveira is the perfect counterpoint because he is an unstoppable force to Dora the immovable object. He infuses Josué with so much spunk, I stopped and wondered where all of his anger, sadness, and enthusiasm came from. I was so curious about de Oliveira that I felt compelled to do a little research. It turns out that the director met de Oliveira as a shoeshiner in an airport. The boy asked the filmmaker for money to buy a sandwich and promised to return the change when Salles returned from his trip.

It makes sense: Although the de Oliveira has had no experience in front of the camera, his performance is completely believable and heart-wrenching because he has experienced how it is like to not have the money to buy something as simple as a sandwich. It is admirable how he is able to summon the necessary emotions to construct a defined arc for his character.

There is plenty of drama and humor between Dora and Josué’s adventures, but the picture should also be remembered for its images. One of the most memorable is a shot that occurs early on. A train pulls over at the station but before it has come to a complete stop for the doors to open, some passengers have already climbed through the windows and grabbed seats that are available. Contrast that claustrophobic image to shots of the open spaces where not one person can be seen for miles. It feels freeing but at the same time there is an element of increasing loneliness the longer our eyes linger on the South American land.

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