Central Station (March 21, 1999)
Reporter : Peter Thompson
Peters Verdict - Not to be missed!
Director - Walter Salles
Main Cast - Vinicius de Oliveira, Fernanda Montenegro
Genre - Drama
Believe it or not, it's really hard to know what to say about a film like this: load on the superlatives and you risk raising false expectations. But fail to articulate how special it is and you do it considerably less than justice.
I would just be happy if you went to see Central Station and experienced it for yourself. And if it's the case that you have an appetite for movies that touch something profound in human existence, I guarantee you will not be disappointed.
The whole universe seems to be compressed into Rio de Janeiro's main railway terminus and the vast, chaotic mass that pours through it like a river.
Life is terrifyingly hard here. A petty thief is pursued by security guards and the incident barely causes a ripple in the crowd. After the senior guard shoots the thief dead next to the tracks, life just goes on. Amongst the diverse peddlers working here is 67-year-old Dora. An ex-teacher, she writes letters for illiterate clients.
Director Salles has a highly developed social conscience but he is also a gifted storyteller. Instead of beating us to a pulp with guilt, he fills Central Station with marvellous snapshots of people reaching out to loved ones through the pen of the letter writer.
One of the things that makes Central Station unusually engaging is that the characters behave like complex human beings, not cardboard cut-outs. Dora is totally indifferent to the fate of her clients.
But this is a movie. You would expect that when she becomes aware of a homeless little boy on the station, her heart would begin to melt. Not a bit of it.
Walter Salles auditioned 1500 boys for the role of Josue. In the end, he was approached by Vinicius de Oliveira, a 10-year-old who shined shoes at Rio de Janeiro's airport.
"I was shining shoes and when I saw Walter I went and asked him for some money. He asked me whether I wanted to be in a film and we started rehearsing, doing tests, until it was time to start shooting," says Oliveira.
Salles says, "I just didn't know he had so much talent, so you couldn't say we chose Vinicius. It was more like he chose us."
Vinicius de Oliveira is quite amazingly strong as Josue. But it is Dora who must be rescued -- not Josue. In the role of Dora, Salles cast Brazil's greatest actress, Fernanda Montenegro. Choosing to work mostly on stage, Montenegro has nevertheless earned several major international awards over the last three decades for her screen appearances.
"In my view, the boy doesn't undergo a transformation. He knows what he wants. The boy is looking for his family, his origins, his place. It is she who endures the great change, the hero's journey, so to speak, for it is she who endures this transformation. The boy is this woman's transforming angel. It is as if he takes her by the hand, this boy's destiny works the miracle of taking this poor demon by the hand, leading her across the country and conveying to her the tenderness which has been massacred by the miserable life she has always led," says Montenegro.
"A director like Walter comes over and speaks in you ear, tells you something he wants, or wants differently, some emphasis you made, or to define, you know, those small impressions which come to your ear. They all heighten the sensitivity of your acting."
I promise nothing I've shown can prepare you for the richness of Central Station or the surprises Walter Salles and his co-writers have built into it.
International success has been a bonus but, of course, Salles made Central Station primarily for his fellow Brazilians. It is a love poem to that country. For non-Brazilians, the film is a privileged opportunity to look through a window into a culture we can only begin to understand. But the connection feels good. Central Station is not to be missed.