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The Road From Rio

[whitespace] Central Station
Walter Salles

Outward Bound: Dora (Fernanda Montenegro) takes a young boy, Josué (Vinicius de Oliveira), in search of his father in 'Central Station.'

'Central Station' takes in the extremities of Brazil

By Richard von Busack

IN RIO DE JANEIRO'S Central do Brasil--the main train station, an ugly concrete barn stuffed with scurrying people--a woman named Dora (Fernanda Montenegro), the main character in the new film Central Station, practices an age-old profession. She's a scribe who writes letters for the illiterate, using an upside-down crate for a desk. At the end of the day, Dora packs onto an overcrowded commuter train back to her apartment. Once home, she whistles up her pal Irene (Marilia Pêra). Together, the women read the mail aloud and decide which of the letters will be sent and which ones might as well be ripped up and thrown in the trash. As was the case for Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, this joke has become a corrupting vice--Dora has little sympathy for the peasants who bother her with their tales of woe.

One of Dora's customers is Ana (Sôia Lira), a poor woman who is trying to contact her estranged husband in the hinterlands. After Dora writes the letter for the woman, Ana is struck dead by a bus. Her son, Josué (Vinicius de Oliveira), a shoeshine boy in real life), is left homeless. The hawks are already sizing up the kid when, with great reluctance and distaste, Dora decides to take him home. Later, Dora succumbs to temptation to trade him to child buyers for a new television set, but the deal goes badly. Guilty and in fear of her life, Dora agrees to take Josué to his father in the northern deserts.

Director Walter Salles has compressed a huge chunk of Brazil into such a strong, witty, tough-minded movie. Central Station rolls out from the teeming city, crosses the Certao mountains and tours the dusty towns and raw new settlements in the deserts. Salles demonstrates for the connoisseur the different varieties of slum: Dora's place is tolerably urban-awful, overlooking the railroad tracks; blue-white flashes of electricity from the trains illuminate her windows. Much worse is the child-buyer's apartment in a building as murderous-looking as a Newark, N.J., high-rise project. Central do Brazil itself is literally as well as figuratively the end of the line: We see a man executed with a pistol for shoplifting. No one is surprised.

From this story about the cheapness of life, the lead actors create a film that's rich with hope and humanity. Montenegro and Pêra are proof that homely actors are your best entertainment value. (As in baseball or in music, the best players aren't there because of their looks.) Pêra's Irene is a badly ruined comic vamp who looks as if she'll keep that push-up bra until she's 60. The leathery Montenegro gives you hope--this woman looks unkillable. Though Dora is the crustiest woman on screen this year, there's a remnant of flirtatiousness in her. Montenegro's open, uncompromising performance ought to be a lesson to all of our middle-aged female performers. Throughout Central Station, Salles holds the sentiment to a minimum; the friendship between mean old slag and difficult young kid grows slowly and naturally and, eventually, sweetly.

Central Station ((R; 115 min.), directed by Walter Salles, written by João Emanuel Carneiro and Marcos Bernstein, photographed by Walter Carvalho and starring Fernanda Montenegro, Marilia Pêra and Vinicius de Oliveira, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose and at the Guild in Menlo Park.

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From the December 24-30, 1998 issue of Metro.

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