Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Film Review: "Central Station" ("Central do Brasil")

"Central Station" is the best Brazilian film that I have seen so far.  The story line doesn't sound very interesting:  a rather cynical and unhappy woman (Dora) writes letters for illiterate people in Rio's Central Station.  Events throw her together with a young boy (Josué) whose mother had dictated a letter to Dora minutes before her death.  After an initial moral lapse (I don't want to give away too much of the story), Dora grudgingly does the right thing and reluctantly accompanies the boy on his quest to find his father, who lives thousands of kilometers from Rio. The film follows them on their journey, which proves to be more challenging than either of them had expected.  

The film won several international awards, a Golden Globe, received two Academy Award nominations, and was widely acclaimed.

What is it about this 1998 film that makes it so wonderful?  First of all, there is perfect casting in every role.  Fernanda Montenegro *is* Dora, and in spite of her character's many faults, she manages to make you care about her.  She also allows the character to gradually develop and change in a credible way, so that by the end of the film, the transformation that has occurred is totally believable. Vinícius de Oliveira plays Josué, and the chemistry he has with Montenegro matches the story line perfectly.  He does not treat her as if she were his mother, his aunt, or even his grandmother, but instead as a rather cranky friend whom he does not really trust at the beginning.  

Part of the key to the film's success is its steadfast refusal to allow sentimentality to overtake the story.  The characters do let down their guard and become closer as the film progresses, but they never become maudlin.  

The film's director, Walter Salles, does a remarkable job keeping things moving along at just the right pace. Most of the movie is filmed in the sertão of Brazil, with dusty roads, sparse landscapes, and desolate truck stops, but Salles and his cinematographer never miss the opportunity to frame shots that are surprisingly beautiful.  His eye for color and composition is amazing, and the film is a pleasure to watch for the visual element alone.  The film has a certain European sensibility, so it didn't come as a surprise that the producer, who takes part in the commentary track, along with Salles and Montenegro, was influenced by Italian directors.  

The script was written by two writers in their mid-twenties, and based on the information in the commentary, it was the first non-documentary project for both of them. They managed to get it right. The soundtrack is also excellent.  The music has just enough presence that you're aware of it, but without ever interfering with the story.  

The DVD was clearly aimed at the American market, so the title and opening credits are all in English, and the film's only subtitles are large and yellow, and they appear so near the bottom of the frame that they rarely interfere with the image.  There are no Spanish or Portuguese subtitles, and the only audio tracks are the original Portuguese (so glad that they didn't dub it!) and the commentary track.  The commentary track is definitely worth listening to after viewing the film the first time.  The strong feelings of mutual respect that the three commentators have for each other, and the love that all of them have for their film, comes across very powerfully. 

The DVD's image transfer and the audio are both very clear, surprisingly so for a film of this age. There are times when it's somewhat difficult to hear the characters when they mutter something as an aside or under their breath, but this just makes it feel more realistic.  

I've already watched this film several times, and each time, I see or hear something new.  Highly recommended!


  • DVD sold on Amazon
  • DVD rental from Netflix
  • Streaming video from Amazon Instant Video (for purchase only, costs more than buying the DVD)


  1. Thanks for pointing me here - I'm really enjoying reading your posts! I too enjoyed Central do Brasil, especially the sweeping vistas of the sertão. The book that first made me want to visit northeastern Brazil was A Death in Brazil by Peter Robb, in which he chronicles the food, culture and history of the northeast, including Lula's rise to fame. It was a great introduction to Brazilian history and culture, by way of a region that few North Americans think of when they think of Brazil.

    Thanks for the shoutout to Hacking Portuguese -- I'll be recommending your blog too.

    - Lauren

  2. Interesting. A dear Brazilian friend of mine recommended me this movie. I am learning Brazilian Portuguese so I'm absorbing myself in the culture and this seems like the perfect movie to start watching Portuguese languaged films. Nice review!