Central Station

Brazil/France/Spain/Japan 1998

Reviewed by Nina Caplan


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Dora is a letter writer in Brazil's Central Station. She transcribes the loves and longings for Rio de Janeiro's illiterates and sends the results - or not - as she and her neighbour Irene see fit. When one of her clients is run over and killed, nine-year-old Josué is left motherless. Dora takes him in and sells him, but later steals him back. Dora and Josué go in search of his father Jisus, using the address of the letter Dora had written but failed to send for Josué's mother.

Dora tries to leave Josué on the bus but he follows her, forgetting his rucksack which contains Dora's money. Penniless, they are picked up by a kindly, religious truck driver who abandons them when Dora grows too friendly. By hitching they reach Jisus' house but he has sold it to buy alcohol. In the town, Josué saves them from destitution by suggesting Dora write letters for pilgrims. This time, she posts the letters.

By chance, they find Josué's two half-brothers. Their father has disappeared, but Dora reads the letter he had sent six months ago: he had gone to Rio in search of Josué's mother and the son he has never seen. The brothers realise he too must be dead. The next morning, while Josué sleeps, Dora takes the bus for Rio. Josué wakes up too late to prevent her departure. Both are left with a photo by which to remember one another.


The trouble with road movies is they often go nowhere. Walter Salles' Central Station makes a virtue out of a common failing. It's a time-honoured scenario: haphazard travelling companions take a trip down Self-Discovery Highway, destination Understanding. For nine-year-old Josué, the search for his father marks his coming of age. His companion Dora, a retired teacher, rediscovers her humanity when she leaves her post writing letters for Rio's illiterates in Central Station to help him.

Salles (Foreign Land) takes recent upheavals in Brazil as his starting point and tackles individual quests within the context of the pain, loss and redemption of the whole community. Josué spends most of the film trying to join a community which is a metonym for the Brazilian society Dora abandoned along with her teaching career. As a letter writer, she interprets rather than instructs: if knowledge is her currency, she has exchanged generosity for avarice. She and Josué approach one another from opposite ends of the social spectrum: he seeks a place, she has abandoned hers. These two disparate but coinciding quests for rehabilitation are the film's heartbeat.

With his brothers, Josué will find a trade and a place in society. It is at his instigation that his mother Ana writes - via Dora - to her abusive drunken husband Jisus, tentatively pleading for reconciliation while the boy plays with a wooden top, symbol of his soon-to-be-lost childhood realm. He will lose top and mother simultaneously. His search for male role models will place him behind the wheel on a paternal truck driver's lap when he and Dora hitch a lift. Later, he will strike a similar pose with his older brother Moisés in front of the latter's lathe: the man behind, guiding the boy's hands. Under Moisés' guidance, Josué makes a top, no longer just a toy but a symbolic token of initiation into the community. This process begun, Dora leaves, having rediscovered the selflessness of the teacher/guide.

Like the trains, Central Station starts from the eponymous station and radiates outwards. People and trains move past with equal smoothness, making their random trajectories through the umber light that permeates the film. Characters collide with one another with seeming incoherence, like the letters which Dora posts, keeps or destroys according to her whim. Life is not linear. Dora tells Josué that one should always take buses because they have regular routes and preordained stops. She associates taxis with instability; her father's unfaithfulness; her mother's death. Dora's world contains its own insecurity: a perpetual liar whose lies are never believed, she imputes her own untruthfulness to others. "How do they measure a kilometre?" asks Josué during their journey. "They make it up," replies Dora.

Vinícius de Oliveira is extraordinary as the proud, vulnerable Josué, chin raised as the tears fall, dictating Dora's clothes and make-up and initiating macho sex talk as he tries to seem grown up. Like a teacher brushing up on a rusty foreign language, Dora relearns her moral grammar for his benefit and posts the letters she used to jettison. The film takes religion as its point of stability, replicating the developing country's conflict between industrialisation and tradition. The two travellers bounce from evangelist truck drivers to places of pilgrimage. In a stunning visual depiction of faith, the screen fills with points of light from pilgrims' candles. The family unit, seen as irrevocably lost, is idolised: Dora becomes a virgin mother to Josué, while his brothers create a shrine commemorating Ana and Jisus. When Dora leaves, the image which remains to comfort her and Josué for their mutual loss is a photo of them taken with a picture of a saint, a parody of the nuclear family, suggesting the duplication which replaces intimacy in a fragmented society. Salles takes this one step further: the result, a random microcosm of Brazilian life both intimate and eloquent, is Central Station.


Martine de Clermont Tonnerre
Arthur Cohn
João Emanuel Carneiro
Marcos Bernstein
Based on the original idea by
Walter Salles
Director of Photography
Walter Carvalho
Isabelle Rathéry
Felipe Lacerda
Production Designers
Cássio Amarante
Carla Caffé
Antônio Pinto
Jaques Morelenbaum
©Videofilmes/Mact Productions
Production Companies
Martine and Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre/Jack Gajos/Elisa Tolomelli present a Videofilmes/Mact Productions/Riofilme co-production with the participation of Canal +/ The French Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Relations/Sogepaq
With the support of the Sundance Institute and of N.H.K.
This film was produced with the support of The Brazilian Ministry of Culture through the Audiovisual Development Bureau/The Rouanet Law for Cultural Tax Incentives
Co-produced and concluded with funds from Rio de Janeiro City Hall/The Municipal Bureau of Culture, through Riofilme
Institutional support from São Paulo City Hall
Executive Producers
Elisa Tolomelli
Lillian Birnbaum
Don Ranvaud
Thomas Garvin
Associate Producers
Paulo Brito
Jack Gajos
Production Co-ordinator
Beto Bruno
Production Managers
Marcelo Torres
Afonso Coaracy
Location Manager
Selma Santos
Pernambuco Art Researcher
Almir de Azevédo
Assistant Directors
Kátia Lund
Sérgio Machado
João Emanuel Carneiro
Vinícius Coimbra
Script Supervisor
Adelina Pontual
Sérgio Machado
Rio, Children:
Denise del Cueto
José Bello
Cristina Camargo
Antoine Garabedian

Jaques Morelenbaum
Edu Morelenbaum
Antônio Pinto
Marcos Suzano
Acoustic Guitar/Viola/ Mandolin/Strings:
Luiz Brasil
Marie Christine S. Bessler
João Daltro de Almeida
Giancarlo Pareschi
Bernardo Bessler
Marcio Eymard Malard
Double Bass:
Denner de Castro Campolina
Ricardo Amado da Silva
Michel Bessler
Violin/String Arrangements:
Paschoal Perrotta Cordas
Jorge Kundert Ranevsky
Jesuína Noronha Passaroto
José Alves da Silva
Walter Hack
"Toada e desafio" by Capiba, performed by Quinteto da Paraíba; "Preciso me encontrar" by Candeia, performed by Cartola; "Mama África" by/performed by Chico César; "Ruínas da Babilônia" by Fauzi Beydoun, performed by Tribo de Jah; "É deus por nós" by Fátima Leão, Alexandre Neto, performed by Zezé di Camargo e Luciano
Jean-Claude Brisson
François Groult
Bruno Tarrière
Waldir Xavier
Mark A. van der Willigen
Sound Editor
Waldir Xavier
François Lepeuple
Olivier Marlangeon
Fernanda Montenegro
Marilia Pêra
Vinícius de Oliveira
Sôia Lira
Othon Bastos
Otávio Augusto
Stela Freitas
Matheus Nachtergaele
Caio Junqueira
Socorro Nobre
1st letter, Rio
Manoel Gomes
2nd letter, Rio
Roberto Andrade
3rd letter, Rio

Sheyla Kenia
4th letter, Rio
Malcon Soares
5th letter, Rio
Maria Fernandes
6th letter, Rio
Maria Marlene
7th letter, Rio
Chrisanto Camargo
8th letter, Rio
Jorsebá-Sebastião Oliveira
9th letter, Rio
Sidney Antunes
religious man, station
José Pedro da Costa Filho
stall owner
Esperança Motta
young prostitute, letter Rio
Marcelo Carneiro
Manula-Manuel José Neves
Walkman owner
Preto de Linha
shoeshine man
Mário Mendes
João, Yolanda's husband
Gildásio Leite
man on bus
Sõnia Leite
Estelina Moreira da Silva
women on bus
Zezão Pereira
bus driver
Felícia de Castro
Harildo Deda
Marcos de Lima
Bené's son
Maria Menezes
Telma Cunha
lipstick woman
José Ramos
pilgrims' driver
Dona Luzia
pilgrim singing in truck
Bertho Filho
pilgrim 1
Edivaldo Lima
Jessé's son

Antonieta Noronha
Rita Assemany
Maria, Jessé's wife
Gideon Rosa
Dona Severina
João Rodrigues
pilgrims praying
Nanego Lira
preacher, northeast
Antônio Marcos
Iami Rebouças
woman in photograph
João Braz
photo stall owner
Antõnio dos Santos
1st letter, northeast
Patrícia Brás
2nd letter, northeast
Ingrid Trigueiro
3rd letter, northeast
Inaldo Santana
4th letter, northeast
José Pereira da Silva
5th letter, northeast
Eliane Silva
6th letter, northeast
Cícero Santos
7th letter, northeast
Andréa Albuquerque
8th letter, northeast
Everaldo Pontes
9th letter, northeast
Diogo Lopes Filho
Fernando Fulco
F-street man
Buena Vista International (UK)
9,915 feet
110 minutes 10 seconds
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011