Central Station (1998)

This month’s film at the Lexi was Walter Salles’s Central Station. The audience loved it. Contributions were very interesting and became more challenging after I proposed that it was a very male film.

In my quest to find films where the old woman is given the social role she plays in real life I am disappointed once again. Some people have seen this film as political film about the Old and New Brazil, others have seen in it a religious allegory. Most commentators and audience alike found it remarkably touching without being sentimental and enjoy it as an extremely well made melodrama. I look at it from an old woman’s point of view interested in the sexism and ageism of the film culture in general.

On one level as most viewers and critics experience the film for the first time it is the story of a cynical old woman Dora being changed by her contact with a street-wise little boy Josué. His mother has just died, run over in the street and they have to escape Rio and engage on a journey to find the father. But from my point of view the film far from being a realistic study of the relationship between two troubled people, presents a strongly male view of the world.

The film starts off in a neo-realist style in Rio de Janeiro. Some of the sequences in Central Station have a documentary feel and the coulour palette is brown and dull. Dora, a retired teacher, writes letters for illiterate people at Central Station. She is a drab woman both in physique and clothes. A male client complains of being cheated; a young man dictates a steamy sexual letters; a woman talks about waiting for her imprisoned partner and Anna, Josué’s mother pleads for her drunkard husband to return for the sake of his son Josué who wants to see him.

Dora is comtemptuous of her clients and destroys their letters instead of posting them. She is cynical and heartless. She examines the letters with her friend Irene, a prostitute and destroys some of them. There is a discussion between them about whether it is better for a child to live with an alchoolic dad or with no dad at all. In this part of the film other social problems are hinted at: the street kid shot for stealing a carton of drink, the vigilante security of the station; the bullied wifet; the child traffickers to whom Dora sells Josué. She buys a TV with the proceeds. Her decision to retrieve the child and leave Rio with him is forced on her when Irene points out that Josué might be killed for his organs.

Josué is a beautiful nine years old boy. His character is well defined as a fiercely proud child desperate to see his father, protective of his mother suspicious of other people and resourceful.

By switching to a road movie where Dora accompanies Josué in search of his father? their identity? God? the film leaves all these social issues behind and concentrates on the relationship between the old woman and the child. As in all road movies, the journey is supposed to be a psychological journey. Josué is motivated entirely by his strong desire for a father and a home. Nearly every event of the journey demonstrates it visually as well as in the dialogue. He asks Dora whether she thinks that the travelling companions in the bus are fathers, if Cesar the evangelist lorry driver is married and we see him sitting blissfully happy between Dora and Cesar. His eyes linger on primitive, serene paintings of a house in the middle of a field that hang on the wall. During the journey, three significant encounters involve an adult man accompanied by a young son. The camera dwells on Josué sad face looking at them. The women in this part of the film are confined to be passive watchers.

But Josué has also absorbed the macho culture of his environment when he shouts at Dora : “ you are a liar and so ugly no one will marry you… you look like a man… you don’t even paint your face”… Although a childish outburst we will see that it is in these terms that Dora’s redemption is expressed.

Dora’s journey is much less clear. Her flight from Rio is forced on her. She tries to abandon Josué, she is rejected by the lorry driver after an attempt to get intimate with him. When they are left hungry and tired in the middle of a religious festival she loses her cool and cruelly blames Josué for their situation. Her redemption occurs after this cruel attack on the child , his flight and her losing consciousness at an intense religious ceremony. She wakes up with her head in Josué’s lap, transformed. It is after this event that we are given the information that she also lost her mother at the age of 9, that she left home and her father at the age of 16 “I long for my father, I long for everything” she says. These last revelations function as an explanation of her behaviour but her character lacks psychological depth and autonomy. The journey is one where we see Josué taking over. It is Josué who suggests a change of clothes to look good when they see the father, it is Josué who steals food, it is Josué who buys Dora a ‘feminine” blue dress, it is Josué who has the idea of earning money by getting Dora to write letters to the saint.

The quest for the father then becomes a shared project. Although the father is not found, his adults sons, one of whom is a carpenter are. One of the last images is of Josué sleeping between his brothers. Dora in the dead of night unheard, and unseen, applies make up to her face, changes into the blue dress that Josué bought her and leaves for a new life – in tears: ‘You deserve much more than I can give you”.

The narration and mise-en-scene, including the music the superb acting and especially the little boy character are extremely effective and seductive. The awards and audience reactions vouch for this. But the film as a melodrama lacks psychological depth and presents a male view of the world. In a wide context of the representation of the old woman in feature films we find that in one film the two prevalent stereotypes of the old woman are reinforced: the nasty old witch is transformed into a self sacrificing mother.

Of course as Salles declares in an interview “With Central Station, the story was basically about the recuperation of one’s identity and also, an investigation into the country’s identity. In Portuguese, the words for father (pai) and country (pais) are almost the same. So the search for a father in Central Station is also a search for a country”. (Salles, guardian.co.uk)

It is not unusual for the old woman to be a metaphor for a country (The Mother, Tatie Danielle ) and we can see Dora as the Old Brazil changing to New Brazil. This is very well expressed in the cinematography. The contrast between the corrupt city and the country is expressed by the change of colour palette from dull browns to vivid natural colours. The focus is claustrophobic in Rio, but deep during the journey. Finally the two letter writing scenes, generalise the change. In Rio, Dora is hard hearted and cynical, money oriented. Her clients are unhappy and miserable, they complain and blame their correspondents. In Bom Jesu de Norte, Dora is reborn and her clients are happy healthy-looking people giving thanks for their good fortune.

Alas there seem to be no place for women in the New Brazil and the only identity that Dora recuperates is that of self sacrificing mother.

About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
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