In these dire days for the distribution of arthouse and foreign film, there is now, seemingly, a template to which non-English language movies had best conform if they are to be seen in a country such as Australia.
A cute, little child is the most important ingredient, usually embroiled in some drama involving the mending of family rifts. This drama gives us the figure of the missing parent – whose absence triggers a road-movie style trek through quaint towns housing even quainter people.
A sidelong glance at a colourful nation, including discreet traces of its past political traumas, helps the brew, as does a heavy-handed emphasis on the culinary habits, sexiness and general gregariousness of "the people". Last but not least, an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film sets the firm seal of Middlebrow Quality on the package.
The wonder of Walter Salles' Central Station is that it not only survives but positively overpowers these understandably cynical expectations.
It is a delicately structured piece, centred on Dora (Fernanda Montenegro). She writes letters for the illiterate populace who pass through Brazil's central train station. Salles, like several great filmmakers before him, deftly renders such a public space as the locus of literally hundreds of fleetingly glimpsed, heartbreaking stories – many of them about the difficulties of romance and family life.
Little Josué (Vinícius de Oliveira) wants to correspond with the long-lost father he has never met, and so his mother takes him to Dora. This fierce child immediately senses that her service may be lacking. He's right: Dora takes ordinary people's money, but rarely posts their letters.
Dora's casually amoral routine – like everyone, she is simply struggling to survive as best she can – is thrown into turmoil when Josué's mother dies. Dora decides to take the boy to his father, no matter how difficult or uncertain the journey. Further encouragement comes from the fact that she is also escaping from some unpleasant types with a business grudge. In plot details and the portrayal of its central characters, Central Station evokes the happy memory of John Cassavetes' Gloria (1980).
Salles' film is saved from easy sentimentality and cliché by Montenegro's quietly passionate, finely controlled performance. Dora is a tough nut, unused to following her more noble instincts. The fabulous Marília Pêra (Mixed Blood ) adds gritty humour as Dora's best friend. The script by João Emanuel Carniero and Marcos Bernstein avoids the mawkish twists and turns familiar from such stories.
Central Station delivers a pathos that is terse, understated and, finally, deeply moving.
MORE Salles: The Motorcycle Diaries
© Adrian Martin April 1999