Notes on cinema inspired by historical images by Dan Williams
The above image may seem like a strange place to begin discussing Central Station,
the Brazilian film of 1998, directed by Walter Salles, but in this series I am using images from the AAA collection to explore more widely ideas about cinema. As we know, film art has a special relationship with time. The latter is not only key element in the final product, it is shaped and manipulated prior to performance through editing, shot duration and pacing of the action. In a medium where time is so essential, so prioritised, it is unsurprising that many stories dwell on our experience of time, speeded up, or slowed down.
In this work the main characters are an odd pairing – a young boy with a cynical middle-aged woman – whose search for the boy’s father creates the sense of a quest for the past, and a journey that is reminiscent of the film Paris Texas. In this set up, time is measured less by the clock and more by the emotions, longing for reunion, mapped across a road movie from Rio to more remote locations in Brazil.
Thinking about the film in relation to the historical images in the AAA archive brings to mind the archetypal elements of the story, including Dora’s profession. As the film starts she is a letter writer, producing scripts for diverse customers in Rio’s main station. That she cynically mocks and destroys such letters with her friend is shocking, but sets up the dramatic reverse which occurs after she meets a young boy, Josue. The latter’s mother requests a letter to her husband, Josue’s father, pleading for reconciliation. Tragically she is killed very soon afterwards in a traffic accident and knowledge of Josue’s isolation leads Dora to look at the letter in a different light. This is a story of moral progress in stages, for initially her plan is to live off the proceeds after dumping him in a criminal adoption agency, but Dora is persuaded by her friend to rescue the boy and then they are on the run. Letter writing can be presented as a distinguished activity, and carries a long history as seen in the pictures.
Having failed to distinguish herself in this profession, in particular from a moral perspective, Dora acts heroically in her rescue of Josue and her attempt to find the father. Played by Fernanda Montenegro. a successful actress in Brazilian theatre and film, Dora is a tragi-comic character, whose expressive face and sometimes eccentric actions are reminiscent of the leading female character, Gelsomina played by Giulietta Masina, in Fellini’s La Strada. This comparison with Fellini’s wife, which was also noted by the New York Times review of Central Station, is due, I believe, to the sense of pathos generated by Fernanda Montenegro, in a way that is absurd, but very human. She is not the innocent represented in La Starda as she is in charge of the journey, but in empathising with the boy she makes both characters more emotionally vivid and vulnerable. Certainly there is sentimentality here, but there is also a feeling of depth, conveyed through Dora, and other archetypal characters.
As the reviewer in the New York Times (November 20th, 1998, reprinted on IMDB) tells us,
Josue is played by a boy, who as a10 year old approached director Walter Salles for money to get a sandwich at an airport. He was then liberated from his work as a shoeshiner to star in the film. He embodies innocence, in a story which conveys the tough nature of the society around him. Meanwhile, the long lost father is revealed to be a carpenter named Jesus, suggesting biblical connotations but also insuring that he is always more than a man wrecked by alcohol, which is part of the plot. He is someone whose work is talked about and lives on, bringing to mind the value attached to carpentry throughout history, as suggested by the example above.
Christian Icon of Madonna with Child
In Central Station religious references are an important indicator of the society’s beliefs but these cross over with other associations. As Dora looks out for the boy and guides him on the long journey she becomes more of a mother figure, and the emotions provoked by the story are then connected with feelings of primary attachment, and a sense of destiny. These may be present in Christian imagery, but can also be explained as a set of imaginary ideas fundamental to Brazilian culture, and more widely to other cultures whose audience guaranteed Central Station international success