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'Central Station': Bumpy Road to Redemption

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 1999


Central Station Fernanda Montenegro helps a boy find his father in "Central Station". (Sony Pictures Classics)

Walter Salles Jr.
Fernanda Montenegro;
Marilia Pera;
Vinicius de Oliveira;
Soia Lira;
Othon Bastos
Running Time:
1 hour, 55 minutes
Under 17 restricted

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"Central Station," a profoundly affecting Brazilian road movie with echoes of "Harold and Maude," takes a road seldom traveled in Hollywood. It's a modest stretch of macadam without road signs, fancy cars or fast lanes. Yet every kilometer brings the travelers nearer to their unknown destination and closer to one another.

The film, which has already won a number of festival and critics' prizes, has also won acclaim for Fernanda Montenegro, the 67-year-old veteran of the Brazilian stage, who portrays the wretched Dora. A cynical former teacher, Dora spends her days at Rio de Janeiro's teeming train station, but clearly this prickly crone is going nowhere.

She makes a living writing letters for illiterate passengers at her makeshift concession, but she rarely mails them. Most go in the trash, while those she considers more deserving go into a drawer that her roommate (Marilia Pera of "Pixote") calls purgatory. She's truly a soul mate of "Seinfeld's" curmudgeonly and irresponsible postal worker, Neuman.

Then one day she witnesses the death of one of her customers, an indigent woman whose 9-year-old son, Josue (newcomer Vinicius de Oliveira), is left at the station to fend for himself. Dora, who was supposed to mail a letter to the boy's father, grudgingly takes responsibility for the child, whose dearest wish is to join his old man.

Seeing no other alternative, Dora buys a couple of bus tickets to a remote village in the barren northeast of Brazil. Of course, no road trip is without mishap and misery. There are lessons to be learned, hearts to be won and discoveries to be made. After all has been said and done, the boy has discovered his identity and Dora has shed her grumpy old womanhood.

Montenegro may have spent 50 years onstage, but she is an actress who approaches the camera with nuance and understatement. And although the movie was written for her, Montenegro, who wears no makeup and dons shapeless clothes, brings no obvious vanity to this immensely telling, finally tender performance.

"Central Station" contains the customary misunderstandings and subsequent squabbles of a conventional odd couple's movie. Like the cult classic "Harold and Maude" (starring Ruth Gordon), it is about affection between an older woman and a troubled boy, but "Central Station" is more realistic than its North American counterparts. Though not so gritty as "Pixote," the movie doesn't altogether ignore darker aspects of street life. A veteran of documentaries, director Walter Salles clearly believes in wrinkles, rust and honest stories. He doesn't play with emotions, he evokes them with the power of his work.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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