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flick pick | Central Station 1998
Directed by: Walter Salles
Written by: Marcos Bernstein, João Emanuel Carneiro, Walter Salles (story)
Starring: Fernanda Montenegro, Vinicius de Oliveira, Marília Pêra
Language: Portugese [with English subtitles]
Look for it at the video store under:
Watch it when you’re in the mood for
something: feel-good, serious
The critic says: / 5 the rating system explained
Fun factor: /5

Plot synopsis In a busy central train station in Rio de Janeiro, retired schoolteacher Dora [Montenegro] sets up a little booth each day, where for a dollar a pop, the city’s many illiterate folk can stop by and have Dora write a letter for them. Dora writes love letters and breakup letters, complaints about old debts and responses to personal ads, faithfully transcribing the words of her customers onto paper. But each night, back at home in her little apartment and with only her old friend for company, Dora dumps out the day’s letters onto her kitchen table and re-reads each one, dividing the lot up into those that she might deem worthy enough to send, and those that are too ridiculous to bother to post. Cynical, bitter and mean-spirited as Dora is, the vast majority of the letters entrusted to her care end up torn to shreds, despite her more kind-hearted pal’s frequent protests. Dora doesn’t think much of her customers, the world, or herself. So it’s a surprise when she finds herself getting involved in the life of a little nine-year old boy named Josué [de Oliveira]. When Dora first meets Josué, he’s with his mother, who’s shown up to enlist Dora’s services. Josué has begged his mother to write a letter to his father, Jesus, so that Josué might get a chance to know him. Dora writes the letter, of course, though she never posts it – but when Josué’s mother is killed by a bus right outside the station a few days later, Dora finds herself feeling a tiny smidgeon of sympathy for the small boy. Josué quickly latches on to Dora, since she’s the only other person he’s had any contact with in all of Rio, and soon Dora finds herself accompanying Josué on a difficult trek out to the far corners of rural Brazil to find the boy’s long-lost father.

Review Feel-good stories about the unlikely friendships that can develop between a curmudgeonly old person and an oddball child are a dime a dozen, but Central Station really does manage to tug at the heartstrings, in a way that transcends it’s somewhat cliché plotline. Certainly a good deal of what makes Central Station so appealing are its two stars, Fernanda Montenegro and Vinicius de Oliveira, who never resort to playing the cute card to get us to care about their characters. Montenegro’s Dora in particular is a fantastically fascinating, palpably real old crank of a lady – frequently selfish in her actions, oftentimes outright cruel in her attempts to protect herself from the outside world, it’s only as her relationship with Josué slowly develops that she gradually lets her guard down, and that we begin to feel any sympathy for her. Her transformation is subtle, slow, and entirely believable, which is what makes her redemption feel so rewarding as a viewer. But Central Station offers more than just excellent acting: what makes it particularly worth a watch is that it gives us a glimpse into a culture that most of us know little about. As Dora and Josué make their way from the grime and bustle of over-populated Rio to the dusty, quiet villages of the countryside, we see a country where illiteracy runs rampant, alcoholism plagues hordes, families struggle to remain intact in the face of these problems and more, and religious fanaticism offers the sole source of comfort. All of this is set against a backdrop of sometimes astounding beauty – mountains and wide open plains dotted with brightly-colored little country homes. It’s all so sad and lovely, that it’s hard not to find yourself moved.—reviewed by Y. Sun

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