Based around the search for a father by a child who has never met him, Central do Brasil tells a simple story, ‘yet one that is full of nuances and resonances’ (Ruffinelli 2000: 690). The film relates two main quests: one by a boy, Josué, searching in the heart of Brazil for a father he longs for; and the other by a cold-hearted, emotionally deprived woman, Dora, (unconsciously) searching for her capacity for compassion. A retired teacher, Dora scrapes a living by writing letters for illiterate customers passing through Rio de Janeiro’s largest train station. One day, a young mother, Ana, asks her to write a letter to the estranged father of her nine year-old son Josué. Immediately after leaving the station, Ana is hit by a bus and dies. In an unusual act of compassion, Dora, who often destroys the letters she gets paid to mail, overcomes the initial temptation to make a profit off the boy, now a homeless orphan, by trafficking him to a corrupt couple. Eventually, she decides to take Josué to his father, who lives in Brazil’s distant North-East.
As Dora and Josué traverse the country, Central do Brasil presents the theme of the journey as a metaphor for personal and political metamorphosis and as a national allegory. The film can therefore be read as a story about the recuperation of self-identity as well as of Brazil’s national identity. Given the striking similarity in Portuguese between the words pai (father) and país (country), the search for the boy’s father becomes a search for Brazil’s roots. According to Walter Salles, the odyssey Dora and Josué embark on is a quest for their personal identities and is emblematic of a nation, Brazil, that is suffering a profound identity crisis at the turn of the twenty-first century and trying to redefine its future and to find its origins. Writing in 1999, Salles states that the starting point of Central do Brasil was the culture of ‘cynicism and indifference’ of the last 30 years of Brazilian political and social history. The film foregrounds the possibility of redemption for the country and, therefore, the possibility of a different future for a more compassionate and humane Brazil:
“The story came to me in a block. and the characters were already emblematic of a larger situation. Dora represents old Brazil: that culture of indifference and cynicism we had in the 1970s and 1980s, which arose from the idea that we had to become industrialised and any means were acceptable to reach specific ends. The character of the boy is exactly the opposite: he represents the possibility of certain innocence, of refusing a deterministic future and granting yourself another destiny. But he also has to do with a collective desire in Brazil today for a change.” (cited in James 1999:14)
It could be suggested that the characters’ journey, in that it is a journey towards the sertão (the land ‘at the end of the world’, heart of the most impoverished part of Brazil), also stands for the need for Salles as a Brazilian filmmaker to search for, and reunite with, his cinematic precursor – the politically motivated Cinema Nôvo, the avant-garde movement that revolutionised Brazilian film aesthetics in the 1960s, and in which the sertão came to be a privileged cinematic location. Combining national history, myth and popular culture with images of the reality of scarcity and deprivation, and the suffering and brutality experienced by the poor and dispossessed living in the interior of Brazil at the time, Cinema Nôvo contributed to the forging of a narrative of national belonging and a sense of shared collective experience. The movement was silenced by the early 1970s by the authoritarian government of the time, because in depicting a side of Brazil that the elite liked to ignore and made invisible, it was critical of the military regime that had been ruling the country since 1964 (Hayward 2000: 55–7).
Central do Brasil starts at the largest train station in Rio de Janeiro. Here we meet Dora – a callous woman who shows no sign of ethical or moral principles and is insensitive to the concerns of others. Through her we encounter a socially marginalised Brazil that could not be more distant from the image created by national television and the media in general, which have played a key role in controlling and defining Brazil’s recent past (Salles 1999: vi). The young and old illiterate customers at Dora’s stall represent immigrants from the impoverished North-East of Brazil. As they try to keep in touch with their relatives and friends, they also strive to maintain contact with their past and their roots. According to Stephen M. Hart, Dora’s job as a letter writer (as well as her former job as a school teacher) acts as a metaphor for ‘the lettered city’ which exploits the provinces of Brazil. When she cynically destroys her customers’ letters, Dora denies those without a voice the chance to make themselves heard. In doing so, she stands for the literate urban white elite who exert material and symbolic power over the rest of Brazil through literacy and education (2004: 184). To reinforce the impression that Dora and the Brazil she represents are trapped in a situation from which escape is impossible, the first part of the film depicts a claustrophobic world with no horizons or skies in sight. While the narrative unfolds in the monochrome urban landscape, a sense of imprisonment is created by the use of closed lenses and by the settings: the station and its constantly moving crowds, indifferent to what is happening around them; the dull façades of the external locations, such as the building where Dora lives; and Dora’s cramped apartment overlooking the train tracks (Salles 1999: vii–viii).