There hasn't been as good a cinematic test of compassion as "Central Station" in a long time. If you don't at least tear up in the film's final scene, you are either seriously lacking emotion, or dead.
But don't get the impression that this Brazilian-made drama is strictly a tearjerker, even if its story is sure to pull at your heartstrings. Refreshingly, "Central Station" is almost completely free of the cliched and maudlin sentiment that has hurt lesser films with similar stories.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that the film features an incredible lead performance, from Oscar-nominee Fernanda Montenegro. Her transformation from an uncaring and self-centered shrew to a caring surrogate mother is quite believable and provides the film with a strong backbone.
At the start of the film, her character, Dora, is a shify, aging scam artist who ekes out an existence by writing letters for visitors in Rio's Central Station. She gladly accepts money from her clients but rarely mails their missives.
Along comes Josue (young Vinicius de Oliveira), a 9-year-old who asks her to write to his estranged father, a carpenter who lives in the country's remote northeast region. The two take an instant dislike to each other, but she becomes the boy's caretaker albeit grudgingly when his mother (Soia Lira) is run down by a bus just outside the train station.
Dora attempts to pass Josue off to others including an extremely shady adoption agency but she is eventually dragged along on a cross-country quest to find his father.
It would be unfair to reveal any more of the plot, but suffice to say their journey is filled with both surprises and disappointments.
Director Walter Salles (who also conceived the story) does a wonderful job of making the action seem realistic and natural, and nicely balances the drama with some humorous touches.
In addition to Montenegro, who very much deserves her Academy Award nomination, all the other performers are equally terrific especially de Oliveira, who never resorts to cutesy antics or melodramatic tear-shedding.
Also lending capable support are Marilia Pera, who plays Dora's more-compassionate neighbor, and Othon Bastos, in a supporting role as a truck driver who takes pity of the two cash-poor travelers.
"Central Station" is rated R for profanity, use of vulgar slang and some sex talk, and violence (including a disturbing vehicle-pedestrian collision).