A cranky loner reluctantly assumes custody of a helpless, headstrong child, and together they make a journey that changes both their lives. If this isn’t the oldest story in movies, it’s close. Charlie Chaplin fathered the yarn in The Kid in 1921; through the ’50s and ’60s, Sam Fuller made the tough-but-cute orphan a veteran of countless war movies. On its surface, Central Station appears to be yet another trek
down Déjà Vu Highway — but that appear-
ance is deceiving. Dora (Fernanda Montenegro), a retired schoolteacher living in Rio de Janeiro, supports herself
writing letters for illiterates. Illiteracy is
so widespread that this gives her wretch-
ed authority over her customers, whom
(in her loneliness, her crankiness) she freely abuses.
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, Josué (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 João 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.
Bertolucci and his writing partner, Mark Peploe, structure this vast adventure with terrific clarity, and intelligence. As
the late screenwriter Waldo Salt observed, there is no such thing as a good flashback — only a flash-present, a detour that
follows a character’s forward movement through memories which enlarge our sense of the present and accelerate the story. Pu Yi is compelled to remember, but takes up the task with a wondering passion. In the film’s witty bestriding of time and space, his attempted suicide coincides with the moment he is torn from his mother. His toughest, most relentless nemesis
in the prison — The Governor (Ying Ruocheng), the man who saves him from suicide — emerges most fully as a character when he sits down to read the published memoirs of R.J. (Peter O’Toole), Pu Yi’s regal English tutor from the days of his imperial childhood.
The Governor and tutor are neatly paired, the better to prepare us for a central idea that goes unspoken for most of the film — that Pu Yi is not in prison to be punished, but to learn. Everyone, Bertolucci hints, is an emperor at birth — even if one’s empire is restricted to the loving gaze of one’s mother. What emerges most forcefully in the director’s cut is Pu Yi the man. The child, whose poignant anguish paved the path to all those Oscars, unfortunately eclipsed the mature adult in the original version, and with it buried the quiet immensity of John Lone’s performance. The hole Pu Yi digs for himself now feels universal — every one of us makes expensive choices when we break free into adulthood, most of which don’t come due till we’re in midlife.
The humility Pu Yi must come to if he’s to climb out of that hole regist –
ers wonderfully in Lone’s face. He communicates, in silence, the richness of the film’s politics, its history and humanity. The Last Emperor is not technically about therapy, but I can’t think of a film that has ever dramatized life’s healing pro cesses with greater thoroughness, or with a better sense of the life and history organized around the soul in transit. To see the film in full is to come away remembering two lives — your own, and Pu Yi’s.