Return to sender

Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles talks about the inspiration behind "Central Station," his award-winning film about letters never sent.

Published March 11, 1999 1:36PM (EST)

Walter Salles, the director of two small art-house releases, "High Art" (1990) and "Foreign Land" (1995), has hit the big time. "Central Station," a road movie set in Northeastern Brazil, represents the fulfillment of his 10-year dream to work with Fernanda Montenegro, Brazil's first lady of stage and screen. His patience paid off: Montenegro is in the running for an Academy Award for best actress (the first ever for a Brazilian actor), and the film also won a best foreign film nomination.

The Oscar nod is a well-deserved accolade for 69-year-old Montenegro, whose supremely subtle acting talents in leading theatrical roles have put her on a par with Jeanne Moreau and Giulietta Masina. In "Central Station" she plays a former schoolteacher named Dora who accompanies precocious street urchin Joshue (Vinicius de Oliveira) across the desolate mountains of the Sertao in search of his missing father. Though small mishaps test her mettle on the journey, her initial reluctance is overtaken by the child's spunkiness, and bit by bit, in a fabulously understated performance, Montenegro's Dora recovers her joie de vivre.

A native of Rio de Janeiro, Salles has family ties to the Brazilian hinterlands where "Central Station" was shot. His father was born in a village of 500 inhabitants in the state of Minas Gerais, his mother in a suburb of Belo Horizonte, the capital of that state. Salles lived in France for seven years when his father became a diplomat.

What have been the main influences on you as a filmmaker?

When I returned to Brazil [in my early 20s], I finally saw films
from the Brazilian "cinema novo" movement and was struck by how humanistic those films were, and how much they represented our own culture. Living in France I'd had a very eclectic background as a cinephile. I started out as a documentarian. I don't think you can reproduce reality if you don't know its texture. You have to immerse yourself in it. Which is why every time I finish a feature, I try to do a documentary.

What got you going on "Central Station"?

Basically I wanted to do a film about a woman who understands the
importance of sending the letters she has never sent.

Did that come out of something in your own life?

Yes. I had done a documentary on someone who did send a letter -- a
woman in prison, although she was partially illiterate, to a sculptor
who's a friend of mine, a 73-year-old sculptor who survived the Holocaust.
He came from Poland. And that changed her life. The effect that had on me
was really enormous. I started to think about what would happen if
somebody did not send the letters she'd written. I also wanted to show
that a character such as Dora, who represented a certain culture of cynicism
and indifference, can in fact change. The film shows that even if you're
at the end of the rope, you might get a second chance.

Five years ago I couldn't have done a film with that quality, but I
sensed the desire for change and for a life-affirming moment in my own
country. And this need for a humanistic approach to life, and maybe to
cinema, is something that's in the air. Maybe this is what explains the
strong reaction that the public has to the film. It was seen by more than
1.2 million people. It has the highest per-screen average of the year in

Fernanda Montenegro has been
compared to Vanessa Redgrave and Melina Mercouri.

She is a Brazilian icon in many [respects] -- she's not only the
most respected stage actress in Brazil, but she also participated in the
movement against dictatorship, against all forms of repression. She's a
human rights activist, and she's very courageous.

Did you create the role for her?

Entirely. Ten years ago we had the desire to collaborate in another
project but we never managed to put that together. Since that
moment we tried on and off to find a vehicle, and then this story came to
me, and she was perfect for it. It was written for her.

There's a real Jeanne Moreau aspect to her performance.

Particularly the courage to do an unglamorous role with no make-up,
with no veils, no mask. Little by little, Dora gains a sensual quality
from her inner life, from within, and that's very difficult. More and more
you see the artificiality of cinema, and here what she brought was a sort
of honesty. She also understood that the boy was a little warrior who was
fighting for that voice in such an honest manner that she very generously
forgot her 40 years of Stanislavski [acting] technique and started to
find a common denominator with him. She could not pretend anything. This is rarer and rarer in cinema.

Give me an example of an improvised element in "Central Station."

The pilgrimage is totally improvised. It started with non-actors, with
800 actual pilgrims who were called to do that scene in that
very remote area of Brazil. We reenacted a pilgrimage we had
[videotaped] eight months prior. The specific pilgrimage we reproduced was
the one of the virgin of the candlelight that brings light to darkness,
meaning the cinema. And suddenly what had started as a reenactment became the pilgrimage itself. The scene gained a momentum that could hardly be controlled. I had two choices: Either we would mingle with it and make the crew work so fast that we would catch everything that was happening on the spot, or we would have to stop and start all over again. Obviously we opted for the first solution, which was the most organic one.

The same thing happened with the letters at the beginning of the film.
The first day where we installed the little table in that area, 300,000
people walked through the station every single day, the people came to us
and took it for real and they forgot about the camera, they were
camera-innocent, and they asked to dictate true letters. And those letters
exposed a poetry that was so raw and so emotionally truthful that we
started to incorporate them into the film. That immediately changed the
texture of the film.

A letter that wasn't sent leads Dora to go on the journey that the
letter would have taken. The film makes you think about what actually
happens when you try to reach someone.

That's the beauty of doing road films. The idea of moving forward
implies a loss, but also it allows you to [recover] that sense of wonder
and discovery that you don't see much more in cinema. We were aiming for that and were lucky enough to find parts of that.

What was the biggest challenge for you as a director? You've got a world-class actress playing against a total non-actor. Give me a sense of
how you were able to orchestrate that interaction.

We rehearsed the film as if it were a play six weeks prior to shooting
it. Secondly, I knew the geography [for each scene] because I had done the
location scouting, so I knew where we were going to shoot, and
therefore we rehearsed according to a specific geography. We would draw
the locations with chalk on the floor so that we could do the blocking,
and characters would evolve within the geography. Little by little you
eliminate the writers' voices in the dialogue, you polish the acting and
you get to know so well the characters, they become your friends. And when the actual shooting period starts, it's just an extension of that family

I brought in two young screenwriters who had never written before -- I
believe much more in talent than in experience. Also what drives you in
film is curiosity. Sometimes when you're dealing with someone who has
written 125 screenplays, he does that mechanically. But in Brazil there
was no other chance. One of the writers was still in law school and the
second one was a literature graduate, but they were writing shorts and
documentaries and I knew their work. I had given some master classes in
Brazil and one of them was my student in directing and writing for
documentary and fiction. The other one was involved in a documentary I
produced in Brazil. We put them together and it worked beautifully. From
'90 to '95, almost no films were made in Brazil, so when we started to do
films again, we had to start from scratch. But the beauty of it was that
the [new filmmakers] were passionate about it, because at that point you
had to be really courageous to opt for cinema, because it was a medium
that had almost died. The fact that these people came with an almost
visceral desire made the whole thing like a new wave.

What was the key thing in '95 that made it possible for a new surge
of cinema production to take place?

First of all, the fact that the students from all over Brazil and
workers went to the streets, and by popular pressure managed to have the
Congress impeach a corrupt president that had totally destroyed culture in

How did that affect cinema?

Because the new president established laws that protected cinema and a
tax shelter system that managed to re-create -- I wouldn't call it a film
industry, but the possibility to do films again. Now we're doing 40 films
a year. We've won nine international prizes so far with this film, including
three at Berlin.

How is this film related to other films being made about Brazil?

It has a definite relationship, because the vast majority of Brazilian
films being done today deal with the question of identity.

We're living in a country, in a society, globally, where experiences
have been anesthetized. And I miss the open-hearted decency of [films
like] "The Bicycle Thief" that had an impact on me when I started to do
this film. I was trying to go back to what I liked to see in films
before. In Brazil we received more than 2,000 letters, almost no faxes,
from viewers who saw this film, and the letters talked about the discovery
of another country -- "I was living in Brazil, but I couldn't think of this
country as what you showed in the film. I lost touch with my own country" --
and the letters are very heartfelt. They're not there to applaud the film.
They were personal reactions, and that was the best possible feedback we
ever had.

By Liza Bear

Liza Bear is a contributing editor for Bomb magazine. She has written about film for the New York Times and Newsday.


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