By Amy Nicholson
By LA Weekly critics
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Anthony D'Alessandro
When a single mother, her young son in tow, dictates letters of reconciliation to the boy’s father, Dora writes but refuses to send them: That man’s a drunk, she tells the woman. You don’t need him in your life. The mother is struck dead by a car immediately thereafter. Over the next few days, Dora finds herself staring into the reproachful eyes of the dead woman’s son, JosuĂ© (Vinicius de Oliveira). This boy, who’s about 7, has nowhere else to go, and by quick degrees Dora is more deeply involved than she wants to be. She tries to salve her conscience by selling him to a shady adoption agency, only to steal him back when she realizes the danger she’s placed him in. They flee Rio and embark on an odyssey through Brazil’s dusty outbacks in search of the boy’s father.
So far, so familiar, but what keeps Central Station alive is the odd but helpful delusion — shared by writers JoĂŁo Emanuel Carneiro, Marcos Bernstein and director Walter Salles — that they’re the first folks in the history of movies to ever tell this story. Their characters are so freshly observed, the chronicle of events in their adventure so devoid of manipulating inflection, that we seem, just as Hitchcock prescribed, to be watching life with all the dull bits cut out.
Fernanda Montenegro’s hypnotic wreck of a face is essential to this. With her vast, haunted eyes, shapeless mouth and eroded chin, she seems to be the very antithesis of womanhood, motherhood, sensuality, heroism, all those iconic attributes the movies hold dear. Children hold them dear, too: The little boy is pitiless in the invective he heaps on Dora’s looks — which, for the first half of the film, perfectly embody her cowardice and spite. She’s been willing to sell the kid for the price of a television, and even after she’s redeemed herself, she scolds him, deserts him, gives in to any number of petty acts and outbursts. The boy is no saint, either — he remains merciless toward her even when mercy is plainly called for.
Nevertheless, a gradual alchemy transpires between the two that is all the more moving for defying predictable sentiments. Where most films trade on the power of beauty, Central Station moves truthfully in the opposite direction. We watch Dora choose, instinctively, against the false authority she wielded over her customers, to embrace the less certain but more life-giving power of helping someone the fates have quite simply put on her path. The power of an individual making hard choices is always beautiful, suggests Salles. He creates such three-dimensional people that their all-too-familiar journey never feels like a movie formula — it feels like an organic road map extracted from long observation of life itself.
The relation between power and beauty is a topic of consuming importance to Bernardo Bertolucci. The revolutionaries, conformists, little Buddhas, tango partners and strategy-minded spiders who populate his films are obsessed with the twinship between the two — life’s truth, as they experience it, is inseparable from either. This theme is given its supreme treatment in The Last Emperor, which swept the Academy Awards in 1987, including Best Picture, but is only now emerging in its
It’s easy to forget now that Bertolucci came to this film with very little clout. He hadn’t had a hit since Last Tango in Paris nearly 15 years before, and most of his early champions (Pauline Kael among them) had backed away from his more recent work. He very likely had a contractual obligation to deliver a film at three hours or less. The question of whether a movie that’s been so publicly acclaimed needs improvement is answered by the extra hour of resonance, subtlety and valuable historical detail that has now been restored.
The story travels the same epic curve, beginning in 1950 as Pu Yi (John Lone), former emperor of China, is herded off a train by his communist captors and marshaled into a dreary prison to be (that sinister verb) "re-educated." At first he resists — attempting to kill himself — but is rescued and forced to confront, through remembrance and confession, the story of his own life — a web of injustices of which he is both a victim and a perpetrator. Plucked from his mother at age 2 and crowned emperor, made to live as a virtual prisoner in his palace, "The Forbidden City," dispatched into decadent exile as a young man, Pu Yi has almost never made a choice in life that he can call his own. The one exception is a Faustian bargain he makes with the Japanese in 1931. He lets them set him up as the ruler of his native Manchuria, not realizing until too late that they are using him as a cat’s-paw through whom they can invade China and ignite a holocaust as terrible as any dreamed by Hitler.
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