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September 28, 2010
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October 1, 2010

Central Station and the Cinema Novo tradition

Brazil has one of the most interesting cinematography in the art’s history. From the first screening of the omnigraph in Rio de Janeiro on July 8, 1896, to the present industry sustained by the state film enterprise Embrafilme, through the Bela Época and the Cinema Novo movement, Brazil’s film history is shaped by its different movements and production periods. Brazil’s current cinematography has been heavily influenced by the Cinema Novo movement and its desire for a unique Brazilian cinema.

Central Station is one of the most popular and internationally acclaimed Brazilian films of the 1990s. Having won praise and awards in Berlin, Sundance, and Toronto, it heralds a renaissance in Brazilian cinema after a poor start to the decade. How does the film integrate into the Cinema Novo tradition? How does it depict the Brazilian people? What does it herald for a new Brazilian cinema?
A massive challenge for Third-world and developing countries is centralization, the amassing of power and resources in specific areas. Its consequences are numerous: the consolidation of economic growth to cities, and therefore a bleeding of education and job opportunities in rural settings; a massive exodus leading to an overpopulation of cities and the creation of favelas — in Rio, there are more than six hundred favelas, where one in five Rio residents’ lives—in contrast with an impoverishment of rural areas. The first scenes of Central Station are reflective of that situation in Brazil. Forced to work in the principal bus station in Rio de Janeiro because of an inadequate pension, Dora, the film’s main character, writes letters for the passers-by to their loved ones around Brazil. Inside the station, the frame is cluttered with the populace transiting through this anti-chamber. The majority of the city shots are then presented as stifling spaces, an accumulation of bodies, denied their individualism. In one shot, Josué is periodically hidden from our sight (and Dora’s) by the numerous passers-by of the station. But, even when emphasizing that aspect of city life, Walter Salles, the director, still manages to suggest some individualism by those opening documentary-style shots of Dora’s clients, dictating their letters to her, baring their emotions to us. Salles acknowledges the gift that such an improvisation represented for his movie in an interview for indieWire:

​In a way, the same sensation that a gift was given to us, was when we put Dora’s table [in the train station] and people started to sit down by their own will and ask if they can dictate letters. You find that they have much more of an honest relationship with their feelings than the psychoanalyzed middle class that rationalize everything before saying it. Those people had such a desire to be heard and express their feelings. Very honestly, we did not anticipate, even in rehearsal, the emotional density would be that strong.

This openness to the unknown that improvisation provides is very reminiscent of Italian Neo-realism, a movement that inspired Cinema Novo. In their article, The Shape of Brazilian Film History, Randal Johnson and Robert Stam pinpoint Neo-realism as a principal Cinema Novo influence. In these opening scenes, Salles captures an amalgam of improvised personalities and emotions to create a definitely original Brazilian canvas, thoroughly embracing those influences.

There is some inkling of what Glauber Rocha called an aesthetic of hunger throughout Central Station. In his seminal essay, Rocha infuses in Cinema Novo the desire to confront the Latin American to his own misery. To a certain extent, Central Station carries that purpose by exposing some of the behaviours born of misery and hunger. In the station, a young petty thief, unharmed and helplessly laid on the floor pleading for his life, is ruthlessly gunned down by a policeman. When Dora first receives Josué at her home, it is not out of the kindness of her heart. She subsequently sells him to a couple in the Rio slums pretending to facilitate adoptions between needy Brazilian children and wealthy foreign families. In truth, Josué will be harvested for his organs, which are a precious commodity on the black market, a situation similar to that depicted in Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things. Later, while Dora and Josué roam the countryside, the camera lingers on the pitiful image of a goat possessing only two limbs, jumping around in front of the bus station. Salles, thus, integrates Brazil’s less glamorous aspects, in the Cinema Novo tradition. Johnson and Stam write concerning Cinema Novo’s approach to representations of the Brazilian underbelly:

​[…] The Cinema Novo directors searched out the dark corners of Brazilian life — its favelas and its sertão — the places where Brazil’s social contradictions appeared most dramatically.

In the same perspective, Salles gives his principal character a significant purpose in his film; she writes for those unable to. Illiteracy is a Third-world plague that only Cuba has been able to fight successfully. Dora is one of the lucky ones; a teacher, bearer of knowledge, who has developed the condescending attitude of the intellectual elite towards her fellow Brazilians, her clients. When she and Irene read the letters, she arbitrarily decides which ones she will send, severing the lines of communication between her clients and their loved ones. Her character is as much a critique of the inhumanity of illiteracy as of the Brazilian intellectual elite.

Religion also plays an important role in Central Station and is used to further define not only Dora but the Brazilian people as profoundly anchored in the Catholic Faith. Its iconography is numerous and permeates the film. Although Dora initially exhibits a rough personality, a picture of the Virgin Mary hangs on the wall. When they meet Cesar, a Jesus ornament adorns his truck’s dashboard. At the Sertão, next to a small church, Josué, in memory of his mother, places her handkerchief on a ceremonial pole. The use of Catholic imagery serves to define a uniquely Brazilian point of view. Its importance is so greatly emphasized because of religion’s overwhelming presence in Brazilian life, as demonstrated by the imposing Jesus statue on the Corcovado Mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro.

However, as it is used in the movie, religion is in no way denounced or criticized. A comparison can be made between Central Station and The Given Word for their use of religion and Catholic imagery. But, where The Given Word is critical of the oppressive aspects of religion, in Central Station, it is purely a narrative device. In The Given Word, Zé, a poor man from the Brazilian backlands, carries a cross all the way to the state capital after his donkey is cured from its disease. Forbidden to enter a church and complete his pilgrimage, he attracts undue attention by waiting on the steps of the church. It is impossible to miss the film’s critique on religion and its role in the destruction of a man; Peter Rist says of the film’s views:

​[…] It presents a scathing critique of the institution of the Catholic Church in Brazil and suggests that a network of corruption oppresses the racially mixed poor people of Bahia.

In opposition, religion is handled in Central Station as a plot device. In a scene between Dora and Cesar, the truck driver, Dora offers him a beer which he initially refuses, declaring that he’s an evangelist. However, because of an insistent Dora, he succumbs to her temptation and drinks the alcohol. In the following scene, Dora steps into the bathroom to make herself more beautiful, more seductive. While she puts on her red lipstick, a Christian song plays on the radio. As she leaves the bathroom, she realizes that Cesar has left, leaving her and Josué stranded. Here, religion has no other purpose than a moralistic one. It opposes Dora to the implied moral view of Brazilian society and characterizes her almost as a femme fatale, unworthy of Cesar’s affection. She will also later be confronted to society’s views of her behaviour when, during a religious celebration, Dora faints while searching for Josué. Overwhelmed by this judgmental imagery and surrounded by repentant Christians, Dora will crumble to the floor in front of a perplexed Josué.

Historically, religion was brought to the New World and used to keep slaves under control. Newly arriving Africans and indigenous Indians were taught that their situation was God’s will and that they should accept it or face the abomination of Hell. It was one of the most important tools in the oppressor’s arsenal. The Given Word does not lose sight of that perspective, at the opposite of Central Station. In that, the film deviates from the ideas of Cinema Novo. Johnson and Stem write on the movement’s intent:

​[…] [The Cinema Novo directors] saw filmmaking as political praxis, a contribution to the struggle against neocolonialism.

As Glauber Rocha writes, “Latin America remains, undeniably, a colony,” therefore to occult colonial influences — or to not reflect on them for the purposes of entertainment — does a disservice to Brazilian consciousness.

Central Station owes a lot, however, to the tradition of the Vera Cruz film company in São Paulo. Johnson and Stem recall the company’s importance in their essay:

​The films of Vera Cruz realized, in a sense, a long-cherished goal of many Brazilian filmmakers: a level of artistic quality equal to that of Europe or the United States.

That desire for spectacle is present in Central Station. Filmed in Cinemascope, the film seems intended for an international audience, depending thoroughly on a Hollywood aesthetic. In its popular style, it resembles Bye Bye Brazil, not only for the road movie aspects of both films but also for their Hollywood sensibilities. But Bye Bye Brazil presents itself as a much more colourful film, closer to the tradition of Macunaïma, than Central Station. Comparatively, the film seems domesticated; there is a lack of desire for change, of political action, and more of a simple desire for entertainment. It fits more into Rocha’s perception of popular entertainment:

​[…] Cinema Novo sets itself apart from the commercial industry because the commitment of Industrial Cinema is to untruth and exploitation.

Despite its shortcomings, the importance of Central Station in Brazilian cinema is undeniable. Following the end of a tumultuous and Brazilian period, when President Fernando Collor de Mello halted Brazil’s banks, Central Station was the first film to bring recognition back to Brazilian cinema. His position strengthened by a Berlin Golden Bear and distinctions from Sundance, Telluride and Toronto, Walter Salles drew attention back to Brazil’s film industry, allowing films like City of God to break through years later.