Central Casting

Director Walter Salles depicts his home country of Brazil and its people with a mix of realism and tenderness in Central Station

Feb 3, 1999 at 4:00 am
Recently in the news more for its economic woes than for its filmic triumphs, Brazil once justifiably boasted of its distinguished Cinema Novo. Beginning in the early 1960s, talented Brazilian filmmakers committed themselves to a "new wave" of social intervention. Independent artists embraced inexpensive modes of production to create political and artistic works confronting harsh social inequities and prompting change.

Assaulted over the years by coups and countercoups and restricted periodically by state control, Brazilian filmmakers learned to cloak their messages in symbol and metaphor. As they entertained and indicted, their efforts gained a strong national and international following, illustrated by those films best known in the U.S.: Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1978), Pixote (1981), and Bye Bye Brazil (1979) and Xica (1976).

Though economic factors now severely hamper cinema's revitalization efforts, every now and then a stunning film reminds us of the acclaimed Brazilian legacy. Such a work is director Walter Salles' Central Station, which draws on the rich heritage of metaphoric disguise without ever sacrificing the historical specificity of its two protagonists. An older woman and a young boy make an archetypal journey into the interior of the country and the heart, geographical and emotional terrain too seldom explored.

Retired schoolteacher Dora earns a living writing letters in Rio's central rail station. World-weary, cynical about her customers, she takes their letters not to the post office but to her apartment. There, with the advice of her vivacious neighbor Irene, Dora decides whether she'll discard the letters, mail them or put them in a drawer, holding them for a later decision. One of her repeat customers is a mother, soon hit and killed by a bus. When the woman's 9-year-old son, Josue, now homeless, takes up residence in the station, Dora's life and his become inextricably intertwined.

Needing a television, Dora decides to sell Josue to unscrupulous opportunists who market organs. But she rescinds her decision, rescues Josue in a frightening encounter and flees with the boy in search of his long-absent father. Dora and Josue's unusual encounters -- pursuing dead ends, help from and betrayal by a trucker, a religious pilgrimage -- drive the plot, but it's the mythic quest and the rekindling of Dora's dormant compassion that anchor the film firmly in our hearts. Extraordinary performances by the amazing veteran Brazilian stage actress Fernanda Montenegro and by the irresistibly lovable amateur Vinicius de Oliveira give warmth and depth to Central Station's humor and meticulous observation.

When I asked Vinnie, a boy even more captivating in person than in the film, what he hoped the audience learned, he stated the message perfectly: "I hope people learn to be more compassionate, more open to others, and Brazilians more comfortable with our self-image and the image of Brazil as it really is."

Central Station has won the Golden Globe for best foreign film and is a certain contender for the Oscar. More important, it's a film that touches and endorses the kindness we all need to rekindle and to thrive. In an interview conducted in St. Louis with award-winning documentary director Walter Salles, I learned a great deal about Central Station's production and its explicit parallels to contemporary Brazilian history. Perhaps not surprisingly, comparisons to U.S. circumstances readily suggest themselves as well.

Salles says, "We have lived too long in a culture of indifference and impunity, making consumerism more important than anything else. In Brazil, that ignited the desire to find a more humane quality, to redefine what society could be. Even though it's far from ideal, the U.S. has better wealth distribution and a much better legal system. In Brazil, there's no way to avoid seeing blatant inequalities as part of the structure. The struggle for justice is so palpable I felt this had the makings of a film.

"There's also a strong desire to reshape our own identity, which has affected the construction of the characters. For example, Dora is representative of a culture of cynicism. Why doesn't she send some letters? Because she knows impunity reigns and she will not be caught. So she can cavalierly make moral judgments. She pays a price, living a minuscule life and enduring her own solitude, because if you're incapable of sharing, you don't realize the possibilities of friendship.

"On the other hand, Josue represents exactly the opposite -- the possibility of change. And by his fierce desire to find his father, he redefines his future, rebaptizes himself and offers Dora a second chance she never thought she could have. This is the new Brazil for me. Dora represents the old state of things and the kid the possibility of changing that status quo, of refusing it, of shaping a new identity. The father, then, is a hypothetical father because maybe we can install a new identity in our country.

"The truck driver represents something else happening continuously in Brazil. Due to their solitude, an increasing number of people are drawn to evangelist churches like you have here. But in Brazil, they have transcended religious territory to become a social problem. They specify your obligation to give them 10 percent of your income to save your soul. In a society where so many people are abandoned, many pay that to be part of a group and to find any solace. But in doing so, they refuse other possibilities, including sexual ones. The truck driver, as gentle as he is, has that limit. By contrast, as Dora grows closer and closer to Josue, she gets more feminine. At 67, she realizes she can have a desire for a man. We worked with subtlety to avoid any exploitation.

"In doing research, by accident I found the pilgrimage, one of 200 every year in that region. It's called the 'Virgin Mary of the Candlelight' for the possibility of shedding a ray of light in the middle of darkness, emblematic of cinema itself. At the pilgrimage Dora realizes the gravity of what she has been doing. When she enters that house where dozens pray for relatives, we see little pictures on the wall. Dora realizes those are the same people writing letters that never got sent, and she realizes the social gravity of her gestures, how unethical she's been. This is why she gets dizzier and dizzier until she faints. From that moment on is Dora's rebirth, an impossibility had she not rediscovered affection with Josue, the transforming angel of the story.

"The letters at the beginning are not those in the screenplay. When we were preparing the first day at Central Station, we were surprised that real illiterate people who saw the table forgot the camera and asked if they could dictate letters. The outcome was totally unexpected emotional voltage, for those letters contain a raw poetry more moving than the letters we had written. I also wanted to show this wonderful human geography, to bring those faces to the audience, to see every wrinkle and eliminate the usual distance between the spectator and a human face on the screen. You see those closeups and know those people must send those letters for the survival of their own identity. This is when you realize what Dora does by not sending those letters is very serious. You've been close to those faces and realize they need to be heard.

"I think a film should also represent your time. The selling of organs exists, although it's not widespread in Brazil. And the incident of the station burglar executed on the tracks actually happened, two-and-a-half years ago. In the first part of the film, we don't evade such subjects, so in the second half we know exactly what needs to change -- primarily society's unfairness. This is why we didn't put veils in front of the camera in describing Central Station and the urban chaos in Brazil, so as the road movie develops, we know what needs to be transformed.

"Those settlements are indicative of the situation where -- again, due to the mechanization of a culture -- people have nowhere to go. So the government invents housing systems to park people in a no-man's-land. Although the houses at first seem decent, there are no economic possibilities in those regions. Ultimately those who go there, little by little, abandon those areas for big cities like Rio. Without a proper education, they probably don't know how to read and write, and become Dora's clients. This is a problem of internal exile and internal immigration.

"On the ending, if Josue had found his father, the film would become sentimental and all the questions would be answered. Although I wanted an optimistic and life-affirmative film, I wanted to leave a question: Will those characters who have found the possibility of sharing and finding love be granted an absolutely perfect future? I don't know. But they have been healed from the wounds of the past and have the right to a second chance they never thought they'd enjoy. This is also what the film is about -- being granted a second chance although everything seems contrary to it.

"This connects to Vinicius de Oliveira (who plays Josue), one of the few cases in the history of cinema when the actor found the director. I needed a boy who knew what the battle of survival in the streets meant but who hadn't lost his innocence. During 11 months, we did 1,500 auditions and found either overprotected middle-class kids totally ignorant of what happens outside their apartments or kids at 9 or 10 who had totally lost the sparkle in their eyes, and that's very sad. Finally, at the Rio airport, it's 7 a.m. and a little kid comes to me and says, 'Hi, I'm the shoeshine boy and no one wants to do a shoeshine today because it's raining and neither will you because you're wearing sneakers. But maybe we can make a deal. If you lend me two bucks so I can eat, when you're back from your journey, you find me here. I work seven days a week, 12 hours a day, and I'll pay you back.'

"I was instantly drawn by the profound density of his eyes. He didn't blink; he seemed so honest and direct I couldn't refrain from telling him he had to do a film test. After he thought for a minute, he said this was not possible because he can't do something he had never seen -- he had never been to the cinema. I insisted and he came, bringing other airport shoeshine boys so everyone could have a chance. He was by far the one who had the gift, who understood Josue's plight and what his ordeal meant."

Central Station opens Feb. 5 at the Plaza Frontenac.