Among those whom Dora denies the chance to be heard is Josué. His desire to find the home and the father he has never seen speaks of his willingness to challenge a predetermined destiny as a meninˇo de rua, a homeless street kid, and to take matters into his own hands, so granting himself (and, in turn, Dora) another chance. Dora’s chance encounter with the symbolic figure of innocence represented by Josué – ‘the moral reservoir that can still generate compassion’ (Xavier, cited in Nagib 2003: xxi) – triggers her redemption and sets the journey of self-(re)discovery in motion. When on the road, Dora’s horizons open up, literally and metaphorically. The further behind she leaves the gloomy monochrome of the urban landscape, the more she is changed by the places she traverses and the people she meets on the journey. This is visually reinforced by the gradual introduction of new colours. According to Lisa Shaw, the colours which become increasingly visible on the journey stand for Dora’s clearer view of the world, while the blue skies of the open road, contrasting the dreary shades of the station hallway, stand for the hope that the journey brings (2003: 170). The transition between the world Dora and Josué are leaving behind and the new one they are entering is emphasised, in Salles’s words, ‘by the ochre hues of the drought-stricken land of the North-East’ (1999: viii) – the rural scenery of the sertão, the other side of modern and industrial Brazil.
As Ivana Bentes (2003) has observed, if the city is a claustrophobic place of alienation with no ethical or moral values, Salles’ sertão is presented as a friendly place where people still care for each other: an idealised, innocent, pure and benevolent place that values friendship and memory and that, although neglected by official politics and hit by poverty, is peaceful. In this respect, the film seems to depart from the depiction of the sertão as a violent and desperate rural area that was at the heart of the early Cinema Nôvo in order to suggest the idea of an ‘uncorrupted’ Brazil, where human values, such as dignity and solidarity, can still be found.
Central do Brasil offers the romantic sertão, the idealised return to the ‘origins’. Its aesthetic realism, with citations of Cinema Nôvo, offers a utopian wager like a fable. The sertão emerges as a projection of lost dignity and as the promised land of a reversed exodus from the seaside to the interior, a return of the failed and disinherited who were unable to survive in the big city. It is not a desired or politicised, but an emotional return led by circumstances. Thus the sertão becomes a land of social reconciliation and pacification (2003: 126).
It is the sertão that provides the dramatic backdrop for Dora’s final transformation. According to Fernão Pessoa Ramos, Dora is eventually cleansed of her moral squalor and cynicism during the procession sequence. As she physically plunges into the crowd, she also immerses herself into the popular faith in a moment of profound spiritual and cultural communion with the locals. The ecstasy she experiences during the procession is the cathartic moment of her moral redemption (2003: 68). Having completed her spiritual journey, Dora awakes in the main square of Bom Jesus, with her head on Josué’s lap. The boy strokes her hair while she (self-reassuringly) pats his knees. Their initially troubled relationship has evolved towards solidarity, companionship and love as they have moved towards the rural landscape. And it is Josué who protects Dora, in a poignant image that seems to imply that ‘the deep scars left by the social ills of the recent past might somehow be survived and surmounted by a creative union of the old and the new Brazils’ (McCarthy 1998: 72). The image powerfully encapsulates the final message of the film regarding Brazilian identity in contemporary times. Central do Brasil depicts a society going through a phase of transition. Eventually facing the devastating effects of a neo-liberal culture of modernisation at all costs that has led to cynicism and indifference, alienation, and a lack of communication and integration among its different social and ethnic groups, Brazil is a country that reveals a craving for a change, an urge to overcome the mistakes of its recent past and redeem itself. The film seems to suggest that salvation is possible, and that the road to redemption passes through a rediscovery and revaluation of the importance of memory and of the country’s roots, in a process that involves acknowledgment of the importance of difference and individuality, identification, solidarity and reconciliation with the ‘Other within’. Dramatising the nation’s contemporary reality, fears, anxieties and aspirations, the film seems to encourage different and often antagonistic groups of people within Brazilian society to see themselves as a singular body sharing common roots. In doing so, Central do Brasil contributes to the formation of imaginary yet strong bonds which can help hold Brazilian people together as a community.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Brazil, France. Production Company: Arthur Cohn/MACT Productions/Videofilms/Riofilme/Canal Plus. Producers: Arthur Cohn, Martine De Clermont-Tonnerre. Director: Walter Salles. Screenwriters: João Emanuel Carneiro, Marcos Bernstein (based on an original idea by Walter Salles). Cinematographer: Walter Carvalho. Editors: Isabelle Rathery, Felipe Lacerda. Cast: Fernanda Montenegro (Dora), Vinícius De Oliveira (Josué), Soia Lira (Ana), Marília Pêra (Irene).]
Ivana Bentes, ‘The Sertão and the Favela in Contemporary Brazilian films’, in Lúcia Nagib (ed.), The New Brazilian Cinema, London and New York, I.B. Tauris, 2003, pp. 121–38.
Stephanie Dennison and Lisa Shaw, Popular Cinema in Brazil: 1930–2001, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2004.
Stephen M. Hart, A Companion to Latin American Film, Woodbridge, Tamesis, 2004.
Susan Hayward, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, London & New York, Routledge, 2000.
Nick James, ‘Heartbreak and Miracles’, in Sight and Sound, Vol. 9, No. 3, 1999, pp. 13–15.
Todd McCarthy, ‘Central Station’, in Variety, Vol. 369, No. 13, 1998, pp. 70–2.
Lúcia Nagib, Brazil on Screen: Cinema Novo, New Cinema and Utopia, London & New York, I.B. Tauris, 2007.
Fernão Pessoa Ramos, ‘Humility, Guilt and Narcissism Turned Inside Out in Brazil’s Film Revival’, in Lúcia Nagib (ed.), The New Brazilian Cinema, London & New York, I.B. Tauris, 2003, pp. 65–84.
Jorge Ruffinelli, ‘Brazil 2001 and Walter Salles: Cinema for the Global Village?’ in Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies, Spring/Fall 2000, pp. 681–96.
Walter Salles, ‘Introduction’, in Emanuel Carneiro and Marcos Bernstein, Central Station: The Screenplay, London, Bloomsbury, 1999.
Deborah Shaw, Contemporary Cinema of Latin America: Ten Key Films, New York and London, Continuum, 2003.
Ismail Xavier, ‘Brazilian Cinema in the 1990s: The Unexpected Encounter and the Resentful Character’, in Lúcia Nagib (ed.), The New Brazilian Cinema, London and New York, I.B. Tauris, 2003, pp. 39–64.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.