CENTRAL STATION was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, but the golden gizmo for 1998 went to Life Is Beautiful. This entry, from Brazil, directed by Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries), also pulled a nomination for Fernanda Montenegro as Best Actress, but the 69-year-old actress—legendary in her native Brazil—lost the prize to Gwyneth Paltrow’s pleasing job in Shakespeare in Love. Paltrow was really good in that very entertaining comedy, and Life Is Beautiful’s showboat conceit worked at the time (it doesn’t hold up well): both choices are eclipsed by Montenegro’s bravura turn and Salles’ deeply humanist handling of this rich, painful and challenging road trip drama.
In the hive bustle of Rio de Janiero’s main railway station, ‘Dora’ (Montenegro), a retired, unmarried, childless and bitter schoolteacher, earns money by writing letters for illiterate, often desperate customers. After sharing the pathetic contents with her vivacious (and certainly kinder) friend and neighbor ‘Irene’ (Marília Pêra), she almost always throws them away and keeps the money. One letter and the dire circumstances of its subject, orphaned and abandoned 9-year old ‘Josué’ (Vinícius de Oliveira), stick in her ostensibly cynical craw, and, after some dubious solutions force her hand, she ends up accompanying the rough-but-not-yet-ruined child on a bus & truck trek to the country’s impoverished Northeast, where he hopes to find his long-absent father.
What would seem to be Central Station‘s central audience hook—crusty old lady and spunky kid bond into the sunset—does not fall into the trap of easy manipulation or cheap cutesy pathos: the story earns its fitting and deeply touching finale by a trial of errors and irritations rooted in the simple poetry and offhand hurts of everyday reality.
The trip they take, and the journey we take getting to know them, is often uncomfortable, as neither the cagey old woman or the obstinate little guy aren’t loaded down with conventional charm, but stick with it and you’ll be surprised how moved you are at the fade-out.
While getting his shoes shined, director Salles saw something in 12-year-old de Oliveira that fit his idea of Josué; beyond being slight and able to pass as nine, the inexperienced boy had the right mixture of innocence and pluck to be chosen over more than 1,500 candidates for the role. *
Venerated in Brazil, unknown to movie fans in the US apart from this role, Fernanda Montenegro is a true life force to be reckoned with, and her blunt honesty as Dora is a revelation of world-class acting prowess. Gwyneth Paltrow was certainly cute and charming in Shakespeare in Love, and the year’s other Best Actress Oscar nominees—-Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth, Meryl Streep in One True Thing, Emily Watson in Hillary and Jackie—all brought their A-game, but Fernanda’s warts & all, bone-deep truth as Dora is flat-out stunning.
Ripe cinematography by Walter Carvalho soaks you into the moment, mood and place with the characters, from the dense swirl of the non-glamorous side of Rio to the wide dry lonesome of the States of Bahia, Pernambuco and the Sertaõ.
Produced for $2,900,000, along with international critical applause, it grossed a healthy $17,006,000. Obrigado. With Othos Bastos (the jovial truckdriver), Otávio Agusto, Matheus Nachtergaele and Caio Junqueira. Written by Marcos Bernstein and João Emanuel Careneiro, from a story by director Salles. 113 minutes. “If you ever miss me, take a look at our little portrait. I say this because I fear that you’ll forget me as well. I miss my father. I miss everything. Dora.”
* The lift from anonymity has so far worked out happily for de Oliveira, who went on to star in acclaimed Brazilian films Behind the Sun (for Salles in 2001), Linha de Passe (again for Salles, in 2008) and 2015s Neon Bull.