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Review: Salles picks up new neo-realism at 'Central Station'

Web posted on:
Wednesday, January 06, 1999 1:15:38 PM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Okay, time for some film school lecturing, and please, don't raise your hand to ask, "Do we have to know this?" As far as I'm concerned, yes, you do.

I realize that most people consider examining any film movement that occurred prior to "Disemboweling Sexy Teens For Fun and Profit" to be an extravagant waste of brain cells, so you'll just have to humor me for a minute. And do try to keep your gray matter from falling into spasms over the concept that movies were a significant art form well before that sequence of screwdrivers and Sinatra records led to your glorious conception.

Back in the 1940s, a group of Italian directors (Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica, and Roberto Rosellini were the most popular) forged a style of filmmaking known as neo-realism. Born out of necessity as much as anything else, these were near-documentary narrative films that used non-professional actors and were shot on the run at actual locations.

The restrictions of Fascism were often the main focus of the stories, but the generally grinding existence of the Italian working class was the bedrock of the style. It was a cinema of emotional and physical struggle.

From 'The Bicycle Thief' to 'Central Station'

"Open City" and "The Bicycle Thief" are good places to start if you want to sample any of this, but you could also check out Portuguese director Walter Salles' new film, "Central Station;" it has all the earmarks of neo-realism.

Dora, a curmudgeonly, lower-class woman (Fernanda Montenegro, in a believably gritty performance) experiences a slow change of heart and tries to do the right thing for an orphaned little boy named Josue. Josue is played by Vinicius de Oliveira, one of those prepubescent amateurs that every neo-realist vehicle needs to display in full view if it doesn't want its license revoked. Their adventures together are a mostly depressing daisy chain of dashed hopes and betrayals, another calling card of the genre.

The humanism takes quite a while to kick into full gear. As the story opens, Dora (a retired schoolteacher) is making money writing letters for the illiterates who parade daily through the local bus station. There's not one little thing to like about Dora in the early going. She's unkempt, drinks too much, and thinks that the people she writes the correspondences for are a bunch of losers, no matter how emotional they may get as they dictate to her. She even re-reads the juicier letters to her friend (Marilia Pêra, a very warm, welcome presence) before -- and this is clearly not nice -- tearing them up and never mailing them!

Foreseeable redemption

One day, Dora copies down a plea from a sad young woman to her missing husband. The woman's son, Josue, wants desperately to see his father, even though the guy is an irredeemable drunk. Dora just views them as another couple of rubes -- that is, until the woman is struck and killed by a bus, leaving Josue homeless.

At first, Dora sells the kid to a man and woman who may be attempting to unload his organs on the black market (something tells me that there will be no Happy Meal tie-ins for this movie), but she quickly repents and steals him back. Then, fleeing the man who bought him, Dora drags Josue on a bus and tries to find the kid's father, wherever he may be.

That's all interesting (and the entire film is extremely well-executed), but once they hit that bus, you know that there's going to be a slow melting of Dora's cold, cold heart. And Josue will eventually stop acting like an angry street urchin and start making eyes at his companion like a Pinocchio-ized Cabbage Patch Kid.

Downbeat tone saves movie

Salles, though, is insistently downbeat about what he's doing, and that's a good thing. There's an overripe melodrama to the situation that would have sunk it if events had continued to get squishier. It's just that you know basically everything that's coming in the story, at least until very near the end.

Chief among Dora and Josue's adventures is a long ride with an evangelical truck driver who seems to have a thing for Dora. There is one event in this sequence (and it's a pivotal one) that's pretty unexpected, but it's still another betrayal, just in case you think there's a reason to go on living.

I know a lot of critics have been turning back-flips over this movie, but I never got properly wound up in it. (And it's a good thing, too, since I can barely get down on my knees and do a somersault, let alone a back-flip.) It'll probably work better if you're not terribly familiar with the movies that inspired it. Montenegro may squeeze out a surprise Best Actress nomination for her extremely earthy work, but the rest is all pretty textbook.

I wish I had liked it more, but what're you gonna do? The kid just didn't make me cry, and I started to resent everybody wanting me to break down after a while. I'd like to think that I have too much backbone. It's more likely, though, that I've seen too many of these movies.

There's bad language in "Central Station," but you have to read it since the movie is in Portuguese with English subtitles. Some scary violence. Lots of sweating, and personal hygiene is at a minimum. Rated R. 115 minutes.

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