We've seen it before: Bizarre circumstances bring two mismatched people together; they embark on a road trip, encounter an assortment of colorful characters and wind up bonded forever.
If you thought this formula had outworn any possibility of invention, see "Central Station," Walter Salles' extraordinary movie that brings deep emotions to the surface even when it maintains a deceptive simplicity.
Carried by a performance of monumental proportions by the Brazilian actress Fernanda Montenegro (who was nominated this week for a best actress Oscar), this simple story resonates with unusual power and depth of feeling, made all the more epic by the setting provided by Brazil's vast rural landscape. On its surface, it's the story of two inconsequential people adrift in that country's endless sea of people and terrain, but "Central Station" transcends its intimate focus to become a moving parable about the hope, terror and beauty of human connection.
These greater aspirations come into play early in "Central Station," which opens with a montage of people dictating letters to their (mostly) loved ones. They are availing themselves of a professional letter-writer, Dora (Montenegro), who sets up her desk each day in Rio de Janeiro's busiest train station.
Dutifully jotting down the loves, hates and everyday musings of her correspondents, Dora doesn't keep her end of the bargain with her customers, at least not right away. Every night, she returns to her lonely apartment, where she and her best friend Irene (Marilia Pera) read the letters and decide which ones to send (not many).
Dora's brutal ritual is interrupted one day by a 9-year-old boy named Josue (Vinicius de Oliveira), whose mother is sending a letter to his father. Dora is sure that the man in question is a good-for-nothing drunk, and later she secrets the note away in a drawer, for the boy's own good, of course. When Josue's mother returns with second thoughts a few days later, a series of events ensues that will throw Dora and Josue together in an unlikely but tenacious alliance.
Montenegro, whose weary, faded face evokes the sad beauty of the great Italian tragi-comedian Giulietta Masina, anchors "Central Station" with a majestic portrayal of a woman whose grief in life has taken the form of a vituperative cynicism. But director Walter Salles doesn't allow her elemental presence to keep filmgoers from appreciating all that he wants them to see.
First, there are the faces. As Dora's clients approach her in order to profess love, spit curses, pray for rain or thank God for rain, each face is photographed by Salles with loving honesty. And he extends the same affection to the sere, impoverished countryside that Dora and Josue negotiate, an archipelago of cafes, shrines and bus stations. As Salles makes clear, in Brazil, it's not the heat, it's the humanity.
Vinicius de Oliveira, whom the director discovered as a shoeshine boy working in the Rio airport, plays Josue with a wisdom beyond his years, and he holds his own with admirable composure opposite such a bravura performance. Because as sensitively as Salles has filmed "Central Station," and as universal as its message is, this is Montenegro's movie.
Until now, she was best known in the United States for her role in "They Don't Wear Black Tie," but this will surely bring her to wider, much-deserved attention. To watch her watch herself putting on lipstick is to behold the almost spiritual nature of great acting, when it goes beyond technical dexterity and into a state of grace.
Montenegro's performance also raises the question of whether Hollywood is capable of creating roles for American actresses of her age and magnitude. And if it isn't, how many such sublime moments are we missing?
Starring Fernanda Montenegro, Vinicius de Oliveira
Directed by Walter Salles
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
Rated R (language)
Running time: 110 minutes
Sun score: * * * *
Pub Date: 2/12/99