There was just no way the motion-picture academy was going to give last year's two top acting Oscars to performers in foreign films - but they should
have. With all due respect to Gwyneth Paltrow, the best starring performance by an actress was by Brazil's Fernanda Montenegro in the graceful and moving "Central Station."
It's the story of Dora, a cynical retired schoolteacher who supplements her meager pension by writing letters for illiterates who come to the Rio train station. She raises her profit margin by not mailing most of the missives, justifying herself by saying the letters are stupid, misguided or deceptive.
One letter she does not mail is by a woman who wants her estranged husband, Jesus, to meet his 9-year-old son, Josue (Vinicius de Oliveira). When the woman is killed by a bus, Dora takes Josue home before he can fall prey to the drug and flesh peddlers at the station. She tries to sell him to an adoption racket, which gets her in so much trouble that she and the boy hit the road looking for Jesus.
But they keep running into the "other" Jesus - first in the kindness of an evangelistic trucker, then with a group of Catholic pilgrims. The kid is as gruff as Dora, but gradually they win each other's hearts as they make their own pilgrims' progress.
Despite the familiar situation in "Central Station" (both versions of "Gloria" tried something like this), it is a movie that takes you places you have never been. Dora and Josue journey to the parts of Brazil they don't make pretty travelogues about - the dry, barren countryside; the dusty roadside diners; and the shanty towns that stretch with monotonous sameness for as far as the eye can see.
But as they leave the corruption and squalor of the big city for the even poorer countryside, Dora and Josue find a richness of spirit among faithful people who do not live to prey on one another.
Director Walter Selles captures all this with a great eye for widescreen cinematography and an even better eye for the subtle changes in his characters. The script (by Joao Emanuel Carneiro and Marcos Bernstein, from an idea by Salles) never goes for easy laughs or cheap sentiment, but moves the characters in a natural and believable way.
Selles got the idea for "Central Station" from de Oliveira, who as an orphaned 10-year-old approached the film maker in a bus station asking to buy him a sandwich. The youth may be typecast, but there is power to his performance, which generates real chemistry with Montenegro.
Montenegro gives a masterful performance so transparent that you forget she is acting. She brings such reality to Dora that it seems we are spying on someone who is completely unaware of the camera.
"Central Station" is a story of love and redemption that takes the viewer on a memorable and rewarding journey in a way that few films even attempt, much less accomplish.