Screened Sunday July 26 2009 on Sony Classics DVD in Brooklyn, NY
The Sundance aesthetic was vindicated – at least in terms of awards and box office – by this Sundance Labs project that announced Brazilian cinema’s resurgence in the late ’90s (culminating in 2002’s City of God). This story of the unlikely bond between selfish city dweller Fernanda Montenegro compelled to help lost child Vinicius de Oliveira find his father in the countryside becomes a parable for a nation in search of its soul. It’s a journey that delivers its protagonists from a compressed cityscape of random violence, organ trafficking and overall nastiness to an expansive pastoral oasis decorated with familial empathy and spiritual exaltation. Central Station is a work of rehabilitation, for a nation’s soul as well as its film industry.
Setting aside the film’s significance to its nation’s cinematic emergence, I can’t say I can drum up much enthusiasm for this film beyond faint praise. As expected of a Sundance Labs project, it seems to do everything it sets out to do, checklist wise: unlikely cross-generational pairing of adorable child who unlocks a curmudgeon’s redemptive maternal instincts; adrenalin-churning crime movie episode; picturesque countryside road trip; unassailable social consciousness agenda. Add to that some Oscar-worthy acting and impeccable lenswork and its as polished and audience-friendly as it can be.
I don’t begrudge this kind of film for what it is, let alone its value in opening its nation’s filmmakers to greater opportunities to produce work of all kinds. But as far as what I think a movie should do, which is to reflect its reality as honestly as possible, I could do without all this packaging; it gets in the way of what’s there. Even the “real life” non-professional actors at the beginning of the film, shot in a real life Brazilian location, feel like they’re on a movie set. Ironic that Pixote, another landmark film about delinquency in Brazil, one that was shot on sets more than Central Station, is the more raw, immersive experience, one whose jagged narrative doesn’t feel like it’s being nudged towards a pre-assigned grace note.
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Central Station among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?
Carlos Eli De Almeida, Epoca (2000)
Celso Sabadin, Epoca (2000)
Leon Cakoff, Sight & Sound (2002)
Luiz Carlos, Barreto Epoca (2000)
Rubens Ewald, Filho Epoca (2000)
Walter Carvalho, Epoca (2000)
Alliance of Women Film Journalists, Top 100 Films (2007)
Film (Eyewitness Companions)
What to Watch (South America) (2006)
Halliwell’s Top 1000 Films (2005)
Rough Guide to Film, Latin & Central America: 5 Essential Classics (2007)
The Guardian, 1,000 Films to See Before You Die (2007)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Synopsis of film provided by Robert Yahnke, University of Minnesota
A sensitive art film of the old school, Walter Salles’ “Central Station” is a melancholy Brazilian road movie shot through with gently stressed cultural commentary. Strongly reminiscent of the work of Vittorio De Sica, with whom current producer Arthur Cohn worked several times, this handsomely crafted study of a search for family connections and, in a larger sense, personal and national hope, doesn’t quite manage the climactic emotional catharsis at which it aims, but will involve and move most viewers nonetheless. Well received at its Sundance world preem and set for competition in Berlin, this will be a solid specialized attraction for discerning audiences internationally.
The entire film feels a tad too cautious and minutely controlled. The land-voyage format and entirely on-location lensing approach pay homage to the neo-realist/Cinema Novo tradition, but Salles’ fastidious style doesn’t allow any spontaneity to creep into his exquisitely composed frames and concentrated dramatic scenes. As a living mural of life across a certain section of Brazil, pic hardly lacks for interesting things to observe and absorb, but its somewhat airless quality prevents it from fully realizing its potential in its hallowed genre.All the same, the film is affecting and pointedly unsentimental in its portrayal of the often grudging relationship between the gruff, callused Dora and Josue, who only abstractly grasps the importance of the search they’ve undertaken and doesn’t realize, as the audience does, that its result will determine whether he will join the ranks of the country’s millions of street kids or manage to get a shot in life through a family connection.
– Todd McCarthy, Variety
Beautifully observed and featuring a bravura performance by the Brazilian actress Fernanda Montenegro, it gracefully watches these oddly paired characters develop a fractious bond that winds up profoundly changing both of them. Mr. Salles’s background as a documentary filmmaker also gives this lovely, stirring film a strong sense of Brazil’s impoverished rural landscape once its principals take to the road.
Mr. Salles brings great tenderness and surprise to the events that punctuate this odyssey, from the boy’s drunken outburst on a bus to Dora’s shy flirtation with a trucker she meets along the way. By the time the travelers are caught up in a religious pilgrimage, the film has taken on a Felliniesque sense of spiritual discovery just as surely as Ms. Montenegro resembles Giulietta Masina in both feistiness and appearance. Her performance here is superbly modulated as Dora begins rediscovering herself in ways she could never have expected. Though eternally gruff, she finds herself regaining a long-lost faith in life and in the very humanity she scorned when those letter writers came her way.
The film eventually views these strangers’ faces in the rapt, joyous spirit that is the story’s greatest reward and that becomes Dora’s saving grace. And it is the filmmaker’s elegant restraint that makes such sentiments so deeply felt. Mr. Salles directs simply and watchfully, with an eye that seems to penetrate all the characters who are encountered on Dora’s and Josue’s journey. His film is also scored with a gentle piano melody that intensifies its embrace of the world that ”Central Station” sees.
– Janet Maslin, The New York Times
You may want to resist this movie as much as Dora resists Josue. You may say to yourself, “Not yet another movie about an aging curmudgeon melted by an irresistible kid.” But that is to discount the profound scope and vision that Salles brings to his story. “Central Station” belongs to the grand humanist tradition of Italian neo-realism and has been made with the care and concern for values and emotions that have always characterized the films of its producer, five-time Oscar-winner Arthur Cohn. It is also to underestimate the power of Montenegro, widely regarded as Brazil’s greatest actress, and the remarkable natural acting ability of De Oliveira, who in fact was spotted by Salles at Rio’s airport, where he had been spending several hours a day shining shoes to help out his poor family.
The world of “Central Station” is all too universal–a place where older people, even those who’ve led responsible, respectable lives, are in effect discarded, left to fend for themselves, and a place where children are even more vulnerable at a time when families seem increasingly far-flung and fragmented. Indeed, a few deft plot developments propel Dora and Josue on a long railroad journey in search of the father he doesn’t even know. (It has been suggested that their journey represents on another level a kind of quest for a sense of Brazilian identity.)
– Kevin Thomas, The Los Angeles Times
Central Station starts from the eponymous station and radiates outwards. People and trains move past with equal smoothness, making their random trajectories through the umber light that permeates the film. Characters collide with one another with seeming incoherence, like the letters which Dora posts, keeps or destroys according to her whim. Life is not linear. Dora tells Josué that one should always take buses because they have regular routes and preordained stops. She associates taxis with instability; her father’s unfaithfulness; her mother’s death. Dora’s world contains its own insecurity: a perpetual liar whose lies are never believed, she imputes her own untruthfulness to others. “How do they measure a kilometre?” asks Josué during their journey. “They make it up,” replies Dora.
Vinícius de Oliveira is extraordinary as the proud, vulnerable Josué, chin raised as the tears fall, dictating Dora’s clothes and make-up and initiating macho sex talk as he tries to seem grown up. Like a teacher brushing up on a rusty foreign language, Dora relearns her moral grammar for his benefit and posts the letters she used to jettison. The film takes religion as its point of stability, replicating the developing country’s conflict between industrialisation and tradition. The two travellers bounce from evangelist truck drivers to places of pilgrimage. In a stunning visual depiction of faith, the screen fills with points of light from pilgrims’ candles. The family unit, seen as irrevocably lost, is idolised: Dora becomes a virgin mother to Josué, while his brothers create a shrine commemorating Ana and Jisus. When Dora leaves, the image which remains to comfort her and Josué for their mutual loss is a photo of them taken with a picture of a saint, a parody of the nuclear family, suggesting the duplication which replaces intimacy in a fragmented society. Salles takes this one step further: the result, a random microcosm of Brazilian life both intimate and eloquent, is Central Station.
– Nina Caplan, Sight and Sound
Salles doesn’t underplay the religious subtext of his tale, and the results range from the clumsily obvious to the unexpectedly moving… For the most part, though, the religious motifs — like Salles’s half-baked symbolism of a wooden top and a lost handkerchief — serve only as window dressing for his limpid road movie, distracting from the bereft scenery outside and the even more harrowing faces of the pair passing through it. Central to the film is its universal tale of faith, of striving and persisting in love before the inevitability of solitude and death. When Salles sticks to that itinerary, Dora and Josué’s stations of the cross prove a ritual worth following.
– Peter Keough, The Boston Phoenix
Salles also pays homage to a 1960s Brazilian film movement called Cinema Novo. This group of politically motivated filmmakers tried to show a side of Brazil that was always ignored or made invisible by the elite. Films by these directors depicted the poor, the dispossessed, the rural peasants, and others living in the interior of Brazil, called the sertao (hinterlands). By shooting in the state of Bahia (the birthplace and location of many films by Cinema Novo pioneer Glauber Rocha), Salles shows that he has not forgotten the national legacy of socially conscious filmmaking in Brazil. The truck driver, Cesar, who gives a lift to Dora and Josué, is in fact the well-respected Cinema Novo actor Otton Bastos.
In contrast to Cinema Novo’s mission to depict the “aesthetics of hunger,” however, Salles’ film has been described by film critic Fabiano Canosa as an “aesthetics of affection” or an “aesthetics of solidarity.” The crux of the film lies not so much in whether Josué is able to find his father, but rather, how the unlikely paring of a dour, initially unfriendly woman with a lost, confused young boy can blossom into a strong bond of mutual caring and interdependence. Both are alone in the world, and both are struggling to survive under difficult circumstances. Walter Salles has stated that his film is about Brazilian identity, and that it is an allegory for how the nation is developing and surviving, despite its financial difficulties.
—Tamara L. Falicov, Film Reference.com
It’s strange about a movie like this. The structure intends us to be moved by the conclusion, but the conclusion is in many (not all) ways easy to anticipate. What moved me was the process, the journey, the change in the woman, the subtlety of sequences like the one where she falls for a truck driver who doesn’t fall for her. It’s in such moments that the film has its magic. The ending can take care of itself.
– Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times
In the early ’80s, it looked as if there might be a new wave of Brazilian filmmaking, but it fizzled the moment director Hector Babenco (Pixote) went Hollywood. Now, like a wildflower growing in long-scorched earth, we have Central Station, the breakthrough feature from the Brazilian director Walter Salles, and it’s a richly tender and moving experience.
– Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
This shrewd, tough, and bighearted Brazilian movie, directed by Walter Salles, moves surely and convincingly from utter negation to something like guarded optimism. A great star in Brazil, Montenegro rivals such legendary actresses as Jeanne Moreau and Giulietta Masina in her ability to alter her moods from mask-of-tragedy woe to childish pleasure without apparent calculation.
– David Denby, The New Yorker
It’s difficult to write or even think about such a movie without falling into sentimental cliches, and that gives me pause—though this 1998 film held my interest for two hours, even taking on an epic feel when it turns into a road movie. It’s not bad by any means, but it also happens to resemble a lot of other movies. Walter Salles directed with a good sense of wide-screen open spaces.
– Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader
At its best, Central Station is a movie of small textures and fleeting moments, the intangibles that pass between people…. Central Station is a film that shares the weight of reality with the fragility of the intangible. Despite its ultimate narrative predictability, the combination is a nice blend.
– Marjorie Baumgarten, The Austin Chronicle
Central Station crosses predictable terrain en route, but it’s hard to fault the director’s vision and assured sense of pace. His film is well served by the touching and wholly unaffected performances of its leading actors: Vinícius de Oliveira gives Josué a solemn intensity while Fernanda Montenegro endows Dora with a sense of ingrained inertia.
Chris Wiegand, BBC4
The main reason to watch this film is Fernando Montenegra’s great lead performance as Dora. Her character is a cynic, and that cynicism helps disarm us as we’re made to watch the inherent sentimentality of seeing a little kid suffer. What could easily descend into trite emotionalism doesn’t, mostly because of her work. There is something lamentable in seeing her cold exterior inevitably melt, but it gives was to the the uplifting sense of purpose we see during her pilgrimage. The film’s got an epic feel even though it’s well under two hours long, and we get a good sampling of Brazilian culture, including some surprisingly incisive skewering of the country’s religious preoccupations. The film seems to be telling us that religious transformation happens not at festivals or in chaste environments, but rather in the unpredictable world itself.
– Jeremy Heilman, Movie Martyr
The strongest point of the film is the documentary type of cinematography that went into showing the parched Brazilian countryside, making the barren land throb with life. The most exciting shots were reserved for the religious pilgrimage the two weary travelers stumbled into. They were caught in the light coming from the bright torches of the believers, as the two wanderers search for themselves in the darkness of the night.
The film was too much stuck in its sentimentality and had an uninspiring and a contrived plot that kept me from warming up to the story. That the woman being transformed from a spiteful person who made fun of the letter writers and despised children to an almost angelic figure, someone capable of bringing great joy to the world in such a short time, was too much for me to accept. Though, I must say, the acting by Montenegro was grand. She is the reason for seeing the film, along with the fine cinematography.
– Dennis Schwartz, Ozu’s World Movie Reviews
It’s just so refreshing to stumble across a film that’s hardcore natural, common sense to its heart. A piece somehow separate from the conventions of mainline cinema, even when it’s artificial in the way that only fiction can be. That’s not to say though that there’s anything inherently wrong with the typical Hollywood blockbuster; on the contrary they can form the centrepiece of a decent night’s entertainment. It’s just that when you look past the flashy pyrotechnics, to places never considered by the filmmakers, those spaces are vacant. The pictures don’t mean anything beyond a self-justification of their own existence. Central Station is, in its predictable but very realistic fashion, an antidote to the vacuum.
– Damian Canon, Movie Reviews UK
“Central Station” is still a formula picture, however, that falls back on a lot more clichés than I would have liked. Its atmosphere and acting are what make it worth seeing, with the director, Walter Salles, and his cinematographer, Walter Carvalho, skilfully setting up their shots to capture the hustle and bustle of urban Brazil. Thus, the journey Dora and Josue take is an effective vehicle to show the poverty, isolation and desperation of many of the country’s people.
– Ian Waldron-Mantgani, The UK Critic
Fernanda Montenegro (best actress, Berlin, Havana, Los Angeles critics, National Board of Review) is impressive, but Salles’s film is easy, convenient, at times ridiculous. Rather than a serious study of poverty or of spiritual growth, it is a sentimental tear-jerker—like Kramer vs. Kramer or Places in the Heart
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Salles’s idea for Central Station came directly from his experience filming his last documentary, Socorro Nobre (Life Somewhere Else), about the correspondence between a semi-literate female life prisoner and the sculptor Frans Krajcberg.
‘I saw her letters and was so moved by them that I did a documentary about them with the negative I had left over from previous films,’ says Salles. ‘I never forgot the difference those letters made to these people’s lives. And it was the exact opposite to the lack of communication I was seeing in Brazil at the time. That fostered the idea of Central Station.’ Salles says the film is a reflection of contemporary Brazilian society – most of his crew had missing family members, many as result of the mass emigration of the early nineties (over a million left the country as a result of President Collor de Mello’s disastrous plan to restructure the economy) – and his documentary background imposed a form of film-making that was closely linked to what was going on around him.
‘We got accustomed to urban violence in Brazil,’ says Salles. ‘There are a lot of unofficial police still operating. But that was part of a larger malady. In the eighties and nineties, like in many other countries, the only criterion was efficiency. In the name of that, we had unemployment and social violence. Individually, it causes you to ignore others, and there is a loss of identity. Dora in the film is typical of that.’ His ace card was casting Fernanda Montenegro, Brazil’s greatest theatre actress, as Dora, the hard-faced retired teacher, a childless survivor amongst millions of others, who pens letters for a constant traffic of people for a dollar a time, but rarely sends the outpourings of love, grief and greetings, callously betraying the trust put in her by the gallery of hopeful faces.
‘I wanted to do a film with her for 10 years,’ says Salles, ‘but the plays she does are so successful that they can last for three to four years, so scheduling is a problem. But I also wanted to use non-actors, mainly because they can reach into themselves without pretension and let their experiences show on screen.’ Having found his lead actress and a crew of enthusiastic novices – including first-time screenwriters Joao Carneiro and Marcos Bernstein – the director struggled to find a boy who could play the orphaned Josue. Three weeks before the start of filming, and with more than 1,500 auditions already conducted, he was in Rio airport when he was approached by Vinicius de Oliveira, a nine-year-old shoe-shine boy desperate for business. ‘I realised he was exactly the kid I was looking for,’ says Salles. ‘He was streetwise but also innocent, and I asked him to do a screen test. He told me that he couldn’t do that because he had never been to the cinema before. Then he asked if he could bring the other shoe-shine boys along to give them a chance. Ultimately the film is about solidarity and discovering compassion, and he had those qualities ingrained in him.’ The next day, the shoe-shine boys of Rio airport laid siege to Salles’s production offices. Salles tested every one, but Vinicius was a natural and the boy who had never seen a film became the co-star of Brazil’s finest actress.
‘Gradually we took pride in losing control of the film,’ says Salles. ‘It changed as we went along and we incorporated whatever and whoever we found on the road. You should be open to encounters, and it’s only the film it is because we found so many co-authors, or co-auteurs, along the way.’ From the chaos of Central Station to a hypnotic candle-lit religious pilgrimage in the far north-east territories, Salles and his crew drew on the landscape and locals. They travelled 10,000 kilometres, a journey in which, Salles says with a laugh, ‘We endured the same thing as the characters on the film.’
– Bob Flynn, The Guardian
Did you throw away the script at that point and use what they said?
We used a lot of what happened on the spot as if we were in almost an experimental film. This was a script that was really developed through several months of hard work and suddenly we were hit by reality to such a point where we had to incorporate it. When those people started to talk to Fernanda Montenegro, they did so in such a poetic manner that it was really overwhelming to see it.
Why did you have Dora and Josué take to the road?
The main interest that I have in road movies is that the psychological arc of the main characters is always extremely interesting. They have to escape from that shelter they live in at the beginning and face the unknown. And the idea of facing the unknown, breaks the mold in which they feel secure and they have to respond to a world that they cannot control anymore.
This film is about a woman who learns the importance of sharing in life and the importance of having common experiences. I think that cinema is about that also. Fellini used to say that the beauty of film for him was the possibility to come into the theater as you enter a chapel and have the experience of sharing, by watching a film with a great number of people that you have never met. That common experience is something that is very rare today. There is a generosity in the act of going to the movie theater and sharing that common experience that makes cinema something that’s so precious and so unique. When people are moved by similar emotions, then it’s as if a small miracle was happening again and again and again.
– Walter Salles, interviewed in Central Station website for Sony Pictures Classics
Give me an example of an improvised element in “Central Station.”
The pilgrimage is totally improvised. It started with non-actors, with 800 actual pilgrims who were called to do that scene in that very remote area of Brazil. We reenacted a pilgrimage we had [videotaped] eight months prior. The specific pilgrimage we reproduced was the one of the virgin of the candlelight that brings light to darkness, meaning the cinema. And suddenly what had started as a reenactment became the pilgrimage itself. The scene gained a momentum that could hardly be controlled. I had two choices: Either we would mingle with it and make the crew work so fast that we would catch everything that was happening on the spot, or we would have to stop and start all over again. Obviously we opted for the first solution, which was the most organic one.
The same thing happened with the letters at the beginning of the film. The first day where we installed the little table in that area, 300,000 people walked through the station every single day, the people came to us and took it for real and they forgot about the camera, they were camera-innocent, and they asked to dictate true letters. And those letters exposed a poetry that was so raw and so emotionally truthful that we started to incorporate them into the film. That immediately changed the texture of the film.
What was the biggest challenge for you as a director? You’ve got a world-class actress playing against a total non-actor. Give me a sense of how you were able to orchestrate that interaction.
We rehearsed the film as if it were a play six weeks prior to shooting it. Secondly, I knew the geography [for each scene] because I had done the location scouting, so I knew where we were going to shoot, and therefore we rehearsed according to a specific geography. We would draw the locations with chalk on the floor so that we could do the blocking, and characters would evolve within the geography. Little by little you eliminate the writers’ voices in the dialogue, you polish the acting and you get to know so well the characters, they become your friends. And when the actual shooting period starts, it’s just an extension of that family quality.
I brought in two young screenwriters who had never written before — I believe much more in talent than in experience. Also what drives you in film is curiosity. Sometimes when you’re dealing with someone who has written 125 screenplays, he does that mechanically. But in Brazil there was no other chance. One of the writers was still in law school and the second one was a literature graduate, but they were writing shorts and documentaries and I knew their work. I had given some master classes in Brazil and one of them was my student in directing and writing for documentary and fiction. The other one was involved in a documentary I produced in Brazil. We put them together and it worked beautifully. From ’90 to ’95, almost no films were made in Brazil, so when we started to do films again, we had to start from scratch. But the beauty of it was that the [new filmmakers] were passionate about it, because at that point you had to be really courageous to opt for cinema, because it was a medium that had almost died. The fact that these people came with an almost visceral desire made the whole thing like a new wave.
What was the key thing in ’95 that made it possible for a new surge of cinema production to take place?
First of all, the fact that the students from all over Brazil and workers went to the streets, and by popular pressure managed to have the Congress impeach a corrupt president that had totally destroyed culture in Brazil.
How did that affect cinema?
Because the new president established laws that protected cinema and a tax shelter system that managed to re-create — I wouldn’t call it a film industry, but the possibility to do films again. Now we’re doing 40 films a year. We’ve won nine international prizes so far with this film, including three at Berlin.
– Interviewed by Liza Bear, Salon
“Jean-Luc Godard was the one who opened my eyes to the importance of sound in the sense that he did not treat sound as it was in all other films. With Godard, sound was never in full synchronicity with the image. But it furnished an additional layer of understanding. That’s when I realized that sound did have a very powerful narrative potential. In my films, the first time when I managed to apply that concept, or rather find a concept that would work for me, was in Central Station.
“Central Station is the story of two people who get their identities back, and the film starts in the chaos of a train station in Brazil. Little by little, the narrative drifts towards the interior of the country where one of the two characters—a young boy—is striving to find his father. In thinking about that film, we soon realized that sound design could add a lot to the perception the spectator would have of the story, in the sense that we needed to convey the chaos in that station, we needed to use sound to show that that was the starting point—the space of lost identity, the space where people were just numbers, part of a mass. Gradually, as they move further and further away from that environment, they can understand much better the world that surrounds them. This prompted us to work with 25 or 30 different layers of sound in the station.
“And the further the story penetrates into the heart of the country, the closer and closer you get to the boy’s hypothetical father, the more defined these layers of sound become, and the more specific they get. We started to search for sounds that would have more ‘focus,’ that were actually definable, whereas in the station you have the noise of the trains, the loudspeakers, the echo of conversations of hundreds and hundreds of people, and then you have the voices of those characters who are dictating their letters to this woman who takes notes for them and “posts” them off.
“All these layers add to one another and sometimes they collide with one another. The further you go across the country, the fewer layers we use and the more defined the layers become. For example, you could very distinctly hear a dog barking now. You could hear a child sing something in the background. We clearly diminished the layers when we wanted to show that the characters were recuperating their understanding of the world around them.
“So sound played a very important part in defining the concept of the film. Every step of the way, it went in synchronicity with the image, because at the beginning there’s very little depth of focus in the image and as you go closer and closer to the hypothetical father, we used more and more depth of field. Therefore it’s about being able for the first time to listen and see the world surrounding those characters.
– Walter Salles, interviewed by Peter Cowie, Dolby
Walter Salles’ background explains how he is able to make a film that is so attuned to commercial factors, while remaining sensitive to artistic considerations. He started his career making documentaries and advertisements, which he made with the company that he founded in 1986, Video Filmes. These two facts are significant, as they reveal a man interested in the representation of social issues and stories of human interest, yet who knows how to sell an idea. Central Station incorporates all of these skills. As has been seen, it is a film with a powerful human interest, while a documentary approach is used in the filming of key scenes, such as the letter writers at the station (Central do Brasil), and the pilgrims at Bom Jesus do Norte. The greatest spectacle of the film, the pilgrimmage, was nota reenactment, but the actual event. This documentary approach means, for Salles, that such scenes stop “being the representation of the thing and becomes the thing itself.” The cinematographer, Walter Carvalho, captures both the realism and the power of the atmosphere by using the natural light from the pilgrims’ thousands of candles.
The flexibility of this kind of filmmaking lends a folkloric power to the film and provides a dramatic visual stage for the actors. There is a sense here of cultural tourism, both for the international audience and for the urban Brazilian viewers. Salles has claimed that he wanted to put northeastern Brazil back on the screens, to represent “a physical and human geography that has been absent from Brazilian cinema for a long time.” The film does this in a visually and emotionally appealing way, by focusing on the faith, hopes, and hospitality of the people, not their poverty or misery. Nevertheless, despite the selective use of documentary techniques, Salles has not cultivated a documentary approach in the ways that [Hector] Babenco has done in Pixote. The line between fact and fiction is thus more obviously delineated in Central Station, with the narrative clearly located within the realms of romanticized fiction…
Despite Babenco’s insistence that his is not a political film, Pixote can be seen to be a more radical film than Central Station, in its representation of social reality and in its conceptualization of gender relations. Pixote relies on a broadly reflectionalist model, in that, within the conventions of realistic drama, it aims to represent life as it is for Brazil’s street children. Although it does not present any answers to the problems of the street children, it exposes many injustices that they face and shows a face of the country unseen in tourist images of carnivals and beaches. The film also offers a critique of the gender systems that sustain social relations within this class in Brazil and offers a realistic representation of the expression of sexualities, exploring the relationship between gender, sexuality, and power. Central Station differs from Pixote in that it uses a transformative mode; that is, the filmmaker and the collaborators use the medium to suggest an idealized, romanticized reality. Thus, the child is rescued before he turns into a Pixote, with the film eager to create a romanticized, audience-friendly, rural Brazil, and not focus on the country’s dark side. The film takes a conservative view of gender relations, and through Dora’s journey, it is suggested that in women’s rediscovery of their traditional femininity and mothering instincts lies the key to personal and national redemption.
– Deborah Shaw, Contemporary Cinema of Latin America. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003. p 164-165, 175
It is clear right from the beginning of the film that a contrast is being set up between the ideology of the city and that of the provinces; life in Rio de Janeiro is characterised by perpetual movement. Dora works in Central Station and much is made of the endless pairs of legs walking past her stall in a site which is, in Salles’ own words, a ‘Darwinist place’ (quoted in Shaw, p. 166); the brutalising effect of her commuting trips from Central Station home is underlined, and the inescapability of the urban rush is emphasised by the fact that, even when she gets home, an open window shows that the train is never far away. Dora symbolises the ‘loss of identity’ characteristic of the urban environment of the eighties and nineties where ‘the only criterion was efficiency’, causing the individual to ‘ignore others’ (Salles, quoted in Shaw, p. 167). In this restless urban environment, travel becomes a central metaphor, sometimes used in incongruous ways. The metaphor that Dora uses to describe the difference between the boredom of marriage and the excitement of an extramarital affair (a bus journey compared to a trip in a taxi) works well in the context of the film, but it seems a little forced that the image that should plague Dora’s mind during her sleepless night should be that of wheels turning and sounding like knives being sharpened. Whatever one thinks of these images, they indicate that the recourse to the metaphor of travel is relentless and inescapable throughout the film; some would see this as one of the film’s strengths.
– Stephen M. Hart, A Companion to Latin American Film. Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2004. Page 183
In Central do Brasil Walter Salles offers an alternative, admittedly romanticised and idealistic view of Brazilian society. A conservative message of the importance of family values is clearly espoused at the end of the film, and the sertao is once again idealised as a site of purity and authenticity: a strong sense of community still exists in the region and therefore such values can still be found there. Central do Brasil paints a positive picture of life in one of the poorest regions on earth. In doing so it struck a chord with the cinemagoing public in Brazil and beyond, making it one of the most successful films in recent years, despite competing at home with the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic (1998).
The protagonist Dora’s bad conscience towards the poor is evident and her oscillation constitutes the film’s main motivational force. To betray or not to betray the people is a dilemma that appeared constantly in Brazilian films of the 1960s, though these films dealt with greater existential questions in less melodramatic ways. The 1990s, however, provide no fuel for the existential-political tragedy. Political action with the power to transform no longer appears on the horizon, giving way instead to the sordid and the incompetent.
– Lúcia Nagib. The New Brazilian Cinema. I.B.Tauris, 2003. Page 63
Let’s say that today’s camera, almost always on the tripod, writes just as yesterday’s camera, almost always hand-held, spoke; that stories like Dora’s and Josué’s write not what was said, but the way things were said in Brazilian Cinema in the 1960s, with the same passion. Brazilian cinema, after a vacuum lasting three years, between 1990 and 1993, has something from the 1960s’ desire to make cinema anyhow. The retaking took place as fast as it did because of the existence of a cinematographic culture, a cinematographic language that we began to speak in the 1960s and did not disappear with the suspensions of the means of production.
For all these reasons, it is especially significant that Central Station communicated so immediately and easily with Brazilian (and not just Brazilian) viewers. A retired teacher who makes a living writing letters for people who can’t read may also be seen – even though not so intended – as a metaphor for the process of the reinventing Brazilian cinema in the 1990s. By reinventing itself, it discovers a common and shared language (each one with its own manner of telling stories, but all telling stories using the same language) of a specific space and time, like Dora. She goes through a process of re-sensitisation.
The film passes across landscapes and through characters that mark on the films of the 1960s – the northeast, the hinterlands, the migrants, the pilgrims, the average worker from the outskirts of the big city – following the path of a woman who, gradually, by turning into writing what is said to her, undergoes a process of re-sensitisation. This expression used by Walter Salles is a perfect definition of Dora’s experience and, by extension, that of Brazilian cinema in recent years. Cinema as a whole, films and their viewers, also went through a process of re-sensitisation. An uninterested distant woman who writes letters that she does not send, winds up, on her journey in search of Josué’s father and, reconciled to the memory of her own father, she ends, in a certain way, as part of Josué’s family.
Central Station (Central do Brasil, 1998)
Something similar is happening to Brazilian cinema today. Writing is a process of sensitisation, just as speaking was in the 1960s. It is also a process of re-encounter with a symbolic father (the old Cinema Novo?); a re-encounter made with all the ambiguity and tragedy that the story of Central Station confers on the image of the father. He is at once the figure that Josué admires without having met, that Moisés despises for destroying himself with drink and that Isaias expects to see return home, to the family and to working with wood. Dora does not forget that her father is the half crude drunk who abandoned his family and who tried to chat up his own daughter one day when he met her on the street and failed to recognise her; but he is also the train driver who (Dora finally remembers) treated his daughter tenderly and who one day let her (then a little girl) drive the train he worked on. Just as the father in the story of Dora and Josué becomes the starting point for a journey that leads to a reunion of brothers, so too is the spoken cinema of the 1960s a point of reference, the challenge, that makes writing possible.
– Jose Carlos Avellar, FIPRESCI
Central Station epitomizes the passionate rediscovery of Brazil, and was celebrated internationally as the landmark of the Brazilian Film Revivial, coincidentially in the symbolic city of Berlin, where it won the Golden Bear at the 1998 Film festival. Back in his native land after his adventure with High Art (A grande arte, 1991), an international production in English, and Foreign Land (Terra estrangeira, 1995), filmed in Brazil, Portugal and Cape Verde, about Brazilians in exile, Walter Salles and his co-scriptwriters found in Wim Wenders (already a strong influence in Foreign Land) a good road to the journey back home. The chosen model for the storyline was Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Stadten, Wim Wenders, 1974), a transnational plot about a German pre-adolescent girl who lives in Holland, is abandoned by her mother in a New York airport and falls into the hands of a German journalist suffering from writer’s block, who takes her back to Germany to look for her grandmother…
Both films revolve around improbable encounters between a lost child and a solitary adult, both of whom, after a long period of estrangement and rejection, regain the feeling of family. Clear though the connection with Wenders may seem, it is just part of a wider strategy. Marcos Bernstein and Joao Emanuel Carneiro’s minutely elaborated script actually contains a number of incidents aimed at accommodating references to Brazil’s cinematic past as a means to legitimize their current approach to the nation and draw the film towards its conciliatory ending. Wenders had also gone back to his cinematic fathers, such as Fritz Lang, Godard and John Ford, to forge a style entirely based on homage. But for Salles, going back to Brazil meant, above all, re-enacting Cinema Novo’s national project, structured by two poles of poverty: the rural backlands in the northeast and the urban favelas in Rio.
And so the film’s journey begins in Rio, whose slums and train station, Central do Brasil, had once been the locations of Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s Rio, Northern Zone (Rio, Zona Norte, 1957), and it culminates in the northeast in such locations as Milagres, already utilized by Ruy Guerra in The Guns (Os fuzis, 1963) and Glauber Rocha in Antonio das Mortes (O dragao da maldade contra o santo guerreiro, 1969). Salles even managed to insert a reference to Glauber’s birthplace, Vitoria da Conquista, through the actor Othon Bastos, a Cinema Novo icon, who, in Central Station, plays a Protestant lorry driver (Glauber also had a Protestant background) born in that town.
Thus the romantic nostalgia for an undefined homeland, typical of Wenders’s characters, is substituted by the euphoria of the re-discovered fatherland. In the process, the written word is also recovered: instead of a blocked journalist, we have a professional scribe whose pen, at the end of the film, flows freely in a letter that details her own story. The restoration of the narrative gift is intimately tied to the retrieving of ‘Brazilianness’ and the effusive enthusiasm for the rediscovered homeland, something totally absent in Alice in the Cities and other Wenders films, in which the theme is precisely the impossibility of a nation or a fatherland. The allegorical title of Central do Brasil asserts a belief both in the country’s wholeness and its point zero, its core, which is the Rio station where migrants from all over the country converge.
– Lúcia Nagib, Brazil on Screen: Cinema Novo, New Cinema, Utopia. I.B. Tauris, 2007. Pages 37-38
ABOUT WALTER SALLES
For a director more interested in following his creative intuition than calculating his career, Brazilian-born Walter Salles has won several awards and international acclaim, and earned a reputation as one of Brazil’s leading filmmakers. Born in Rio de Janeiro into a well-to-do family-his father was a prominent banker and diplomat-Salles lived in France and the United States before resettling in his native country. After a stretch as an award-winning documentarian in the 1980’s, Salles turned to feature films with “Exposure” (“A Grande Arte”, 1991), a thriller about a photographer avenging the death of a prostitute. Though he continued to make documentaries-mainly for European television-Salles began to thrive in the feature world, starting with his second effort, “Foreign Land” (“Terra Estrangeira”, 1995).
Co-directed with fellow Brazilian Daniela Thomas, “Foreign Land’ was a beautifully filmed drama set in Brazil during the economic crisis of 1990. The film toured the festival circuit-including Rotterdam, Vancouver and Sundance-and furthered Salles desire to tell stories about Brazil’s history of economic hardship. His next film, “Central Station” (1998), earned the director a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and a nomination for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Made with grants from the Sundance Institute among other sources, “Central Station” helped establish Salles as prominent member of a new wave of filmmakers emerging from Latin America-a group that included Alfonso Cuaron (“Y Tu Mama Tambien”), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Amores Perros”), and Guillermo del Toro (“Cronos”).
Salles teamed up with co-director Thomas once again for “Midnight” (“O Primeiro Dia”, 1998), Brazil’s entry into ‘2000 Seen By…’, a series of millennium-themed films commissioned by French television. With “Behind the Sun” (2001), Salles enhanced his reputation as a prominent foreign director. Set in a remote Brazilian farming community in 1910, this drama about a young man caught in the middle of an age-old family feud earned nominations for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards. Then in 2004, Salles directed “The Motorcycle Diaries”, a coming of age road film about a young medical student, Ernesto Guevera-who later became celebrated revolutionary Che Guevera-and his friend Alberto Granado, and their journey to discover the real South America. Five years in the making, Salles credited the Sundance Institute and executive producer Robert Redford for being crucial in getting the film made-studios weren’t interested in backing the film, not for political reasons, but for an apparent lack of structure and external conflict. The struggle to get “The Motorcycle Diaries” made paid off, as another Salles film earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film. Meanwhile, Salles made his first foray into the Hollywood system with “Dark Water” (2005), a remake of the Japanese film by Hideo Nakata, starring Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, and Tim Roth.
Many quotes by Walter Salles at BrainyQuote
WHAT IS A POLITICAL FILM?
Well, what is a political film? I think that is a good question to start with. I think it is a film that is not only about character, it is about a character that is changed by the social and political climates surrounding it. If you take a look at all the important film movements, let’s say the Italian Neorealism, or the Nouvelle Vague in France, or the Cinema Nuevo in Brazil, the great independent cinema of the 1970s in the US for instance, these were never films only about characters. This is what Hollywood normally does, films only about characters. But these were films about characters that were in a transition, that would never be the same at the end of the story because they would confront a social and political reality they had to deal with. So maybe what we should say is, what is politics?
I have put together five or six extracts of what I consider to be really great political films of different extractions, starting with an Eisenstein film of 1929 called THE GENERAL LINE (Sergej M. Eisenstein). These are films that I really love, and they are so diverse in terms of tone and style, and yet they have a unifying quality.
[Various film extracts are screened.]
THE GENERAL LINE is a film about the importance of collectivism and it really questions the religious principles at that time. It is a film that collides against the possibility of bowing to religion. The religious orthodox priest is promising rain here, and the peasants bow to this possibility, they still believe that this will come. And Eisenstein starts to question it. Of course the rain is not going to come, and a revolt against the religious powers is going to start. Now THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (LA BATTAGLIA DI ALGERI, 1966) by Gillo Pontecorvo. This is about the Algerian resistance against the French invaders, and if these images were in colour today, they would remind us of something that we are watching daily on television today in Iraq I think. Roberto Rossellini’s film ROME, OPEN CITY (ROMA, CITTÀ APERTA, 1945) that launched the Italian neorealism. The camera is brought to the streets, and Rossellini creates not only an aesthetic revolution but an ethical revolution in cinema as well.
This is a Cuban film by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT (MEMORIAS DEL SUBDESARROLLO, 1968). It is a film about a man who in 1961 in Havana decides not to leave the country that was undergoing the Cuban revolution, but his family goes and he stays behind. What I find interesting about this film is that many scenes are filmed in such a way that you don’t know if you are watching a documentary or if you are watching a fiction film. Godard used to say that the best fiction films drift towards documentaries, and that the best documentaries drift towards fiction, and this may be a very good example of that. And THE GREAT DICTATOR (Charlie Chaplin, 1940), finally. The only true genius in the history of cinema. He wrote it, acted in it, edited it and did the music.
Peter Cowie: Walter, were you influenced by Cinema Nuevo when you were young? Like Antonioni and Robert Altman, you waited until your late 30s to make your first feature film, but when you did finally FOREIGN LAND it almost echoes that Cinema Nuevo tradition.
Walter Salles: Yes, I was influenced by it, and how could you not be coming from where I come. But at the same time I had seen Antonioni, and the questioning of identity became very central also to my life because I was born in Brazil but my father was a diplomat during part of his life, so I bumped from country to country, and city to city. Really right at the beginning I was trying to answer the question, where am I from? Cinema Nuevo sort of answered that question. It showed to me what the country not only was but what the country eventually could be. And it is not by accident that I started doing documentaries. I got to fiction pretty late. I never thought I could be a fiction filmmaker. I just wanted to do documentaries and this is how I started. As a desire to actually understand really what country I am from, what kind of culture do I belong to.
– Walter Salles at the Berlinale Talent Campus, interviewed by Peter Cowie