The Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles Jr. has found a fascinating and powerful story to tell us in Central Station, and fleshed it out with two protagonists who carry that power to us in a believable and empathic way. In fact Salles has given us so much to admire and respond to that it's all the more hurtful when his own weaknesses as a director undercut his film.
His story, which could have come from any of a hundred sidebars in, say, a New York Times story about contemporary Brazil, is about an older woman, Dora, a retired teacher on a minuscule pension, who now ekes out a living as a writer of letters for illiterate people at Rio de Janeiro's central railroad station, a self-contained world that seethes with life and pain. Dora is played by Brazilian actress Fernanda Montenegro, who's let her skin wrinkle and her manner toughen here into an almost aggressively homely force that she's designed to keep the world and any emotion at the greatest possible distance.
Thousands of people -- commuters, thieves, the needy -- the living, you might say -- pass by her table every day without distracting her from her work, which she herself will not even take seriously enough to actually mail the letters she writes. But one day a mother and son come by. The mother dictates a letter to the boy's father, who is far away and has not communicated with her. The two have barely left the station when the mother is killed; and the boy comes back to the only connection he now has: Dora and the letter to his father. The boy, Josué, is played by Vinicius de Oliveiria, himself a street child whom Salles found at the station. He has a beautiful face and the rare quality of being transparent to the camera; we in the audience can see into his every thought. He makes a perfect foil for Dora.
After a few abortive attempts to rid herself of this unwanted reminder of life and the world around her, Dora finds herself on an odyssey with the boy, guided only by the address on the letter, traveling cross country to take him to his father. The rest of the film is the story of that journey. It's a powerful story, punctuated with funny moments because both Dora and Josué have a wicked wit and a wry perspective on their situation, and Montenegro never steps out of character to wink or let us know that she's not really the lonely and hard-shelled old witch we see on screen. It's a wonderful performance that carries us along with her as she slowly comes to soften that shell over time, tentatively reaching out -- what? -- a bare finger or two toward the possibility of love, or at least a life, with someone else.
There's a subtext to the film that consists of a cool and unblinking look at Christianity in Brazil -- both the traditional Catholic and the newer evangelical movement. There's a gorgeously photographed yet obscenely degrading procession and celebration of an evangelical saint by thousands of impoverished, illiterate people who give their energy to Christ instead of to their world and lives -- a moment that's enough to make a Marxist out of anyone.
And yet with all this material, all the power of its story and its principals, all the overtones in its portrait of a country determined to take everything from its poor and give only Jesus in return, the film is still slack and unfocused. Somehow Salles has chosen the wrong shots, the wrong editing rhythm, the wrong camera placement, the wrong timing of scenes, and ended up by weakening his own work He has a marvellous camera eye for landscapes, and the countryside of the journey is fascinating to look at, but then he simply sets his people down in front of the camera and has them talk. Every scene is static and ultimately lifeless. We find ourselves fighting to keep our interest up when instead we should be swept away by the power and implications of the story and the characters. Salles has done everything right except direct it.