CENTRAL STATION (1998)

(a “goodbye and/or hello” film review by Timothy J. Verret)

CENTRAL STATION is a film about leaving. It’s a film about leaving when there is a “goodbye and/or hello.” Leaving is hard enough without leaving with no “goodbye and/or hello” ever being spoken. That kind of leaving often destroys us. But just when someone leaves without saying, “goodbye,” someone else comes along to say, “hello.”

CENTRAL STATION is a Brazilian-French film that was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1998 (it lost to Italy’s LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL which would have been almost impossible to beat). I often watch CENTRAL STATION when I need a “good cry,” and it never fails to produce just that. I am a guaranteed tearful “mess” by the film’s end. And the film taps into my fears of abandonment so effectively that I’m tearful and yet strangely hopeful at the same time. “Goodbye and/or hello” just get me like that.

Dora is an older, unmarried, hard-hearted woman who works at the central station in Brazil, writing letters for people who have a host of emotional scars yearning to be communicated in words to the ones who scarred them. Dora does not take this job seriously at all. In fact, she often will not mail the letters others have her write. She sort of despondently discards those letters she deems “unnecessary to mail” and the ones that sort of “reach” her, she slams in a drawer, a place her friend, Irene, calls a “purgatory.” Whether Dora mails those or not, it is never said. One day, Dora writes a letter for a woman with a young son. The woman says in the letter that she is only writing to her hated husband because her son wants to know and meet his father. When the mother dies in a bus accident, Dora takes on a responsibility where the young boy is concerned that she did not expect, what she desperately exclaims later in the film, “God, what did I do to deserve this?” What Dora doesn’t know is that the role she ends up playing in the abandoned son’s life will forever change her perspective on what it means to be a mother and, more importantly, what it means when that perspective changes your whole life.

CENTRAL STATION is a film about a journey. It is no coincidence that the film begins at a central station where people all day long are leaving. They are leaving to say “goodbye” and they are leaving to say “hello.” Dora and the son, whose name is Josue, go on a journey to find Josue’s father. What this journey does for Dora is force her to look at the estranged relationship she had with her own father. Much like Josue’s father, Dora’s father was a drunk and a deadbeat. Dora tells us she left home when she was 16 and saw her father one day later on a street and went up to him to know if he would recognize her. He didn’t, so she told him she made a mistake. It’s only at the film’s end that we find out Dora longs for this same father and longs for everything. She says these exact words and when she does, she speaks for all of us who long for our same father….for everything.

Fernanda Montenegro plays Dora in CENTRAL STATION. All I can say about her performance in the highest esteem is that she was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar and most certainly deserved it. She, however, lost to Gwyneth Paltrow for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. I adored Paltrow in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, but she gave a “pretty” performance (pretty darn great, if you ask me). But Montenegro had an “unattractive” role and if I know the Oscars like I think I know the Oscars, they tend to go with the “pretty” performances. But if I had had the opportunity to cast my vote for the Oscar Best Actress that year, it most certainly would have been a tie. I could not begin to imagine neither actress winning the Oscar. Montenegro has a face that can best be described as looking like an “old hound dog.” Her eyes are large and low. She has a “please, someone help me!” face, and the size and location of her eyes mirror our own when it comes to needing help that much. Montenegro is a complete and consummate actress here giving one of the best performances by an actress I have ever seen, foreign film or not! Josue is played by Vinicius de Oliveira. I would imagine for any director casting a young actor in such a pivotal role as Josue, the question that must have lingered in the mind was, “how am I going to get this very young and inexperienced actor to handle the emotional landscape of his character?” I’m sure director Walter Salles was enormously relieved with what de Oliveira accomplished in CENTRAL STATION. He breaks our heart at every turn of this journey until its satisfying or unsatisfying conclusion, depending on how the viewer translates “goodbye and/or hello.”

There’s something to be said about films that one would call a “road trip film,” but CENTRAL STATION is way more than a typical film of this genre. It is a film about leaving, heading somewhere, not sure what or who is waiting down the road, only to find that the leaving was worth the miles and miles of traveling to be altered all for the better. Maybe that is what a “road trip film” really is all about in the first place, but I know no film that has done it any better than CENTRAL STATION.

One thing I can say about CENTRAL STATION is PLEASE don’t say “goodbye” to this film if you have not seen it. Most definitely, PLEASE say “hello” (or, more appropriately, “Olá”) to seeing this film and, more importantly, emotionally experiencing it.

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