by Ralph Dumain

I should be grateful for the opportunity to have seen the film Central Station just because it forced me to ponder certain fundamental issues. But what it makes me ponder goes a considerable distance from the film's manifest content. I've long noticed something interesting when comparing films from underdeveloped areas with hi-tech American films. American films are rarely about people anymore, they are mostly about technology and survivalism. But in third world countries, esp. films that get exported abroad, films are still about people. Which is another reason to think twice about them! Why? Because the morality of spectatorship is a question that gets so easily submerged in our willingness to identify with people from such a safe distance, assuming that identification or empathy is a temptation in the first place.

I noticed this when I used to go see African films, not the ones with big themes, but those small-scale human interest stories that revolve around the conflict between old ways and the impersonality and alienation of modern urban life where moral compromise is rife. These human interest stories which have become completely obsolete in our own culture, and those themes which are completely trite to us, retain their emotional impact when we watch them taking place in unfamiliar cultures, because where the infrastructure is so underdeveloped, the fundamental dramas of human personalities and the raw physicality of existence stand out as forceful and imposing elements. We begin to sink into the intellectual unconsciousness of the people themselves and begin to relate to them vicariously, whereas in real life we wouldn't devote two seconds of our attention to illiterate peasants if we ever by some remote chance bumped into any.

So should we take these films at face value, or should we read into them the issues that lie mute in the scenery, and make their silences speak, to us, an audience so different, so un-at-home in their environment? The overt themes that crop up in tales of these backward societies are home, loss, quest, and connection. (Just the same themes that I found in August Wilson's play Joe Turner's Come and Gone, a great play by a reactionary ideologue.) Yet it seems to me that so much more is missing than their lost loved ones. How the poor bore me to tears; how unbearably tedious is the culture of poverty.

Central Station takes place in Brazil, where the scenery is so crude, for us in the advanced industrial urban world, watching it like taking a trip back in time. The central character is a middle-aged woman who writes letters for a living for poor people who are illiterate. Already this takes us out of our contemporary environment to a much simpler society. This woman also intervenes in the lives of these letter-writers by surreptitiously bringing their letters home with her and deciding which to mail, which to keep for herself, and which to tear up and throw out. The transmitters of all this information, who have entrusted their deepest secrets and crucial life decisions to this woman, have no idea of how she is secretly making her own judgments about what is good for them and interfering in their lives. She tends to trash love letters to and from ne'er-do-wells, for example. The only other person who knows about this is her friend, another lonely single not-so-young woman.

The routine changes with this little boy who keeps coming around with her mother, who keeps dictating letters to a long-lost husband or boyfriend who is the boy's father. Our main character dismisses this man as a wastrel, so she sequesters the letters and refrains from mailing them. Then the boy's mother get hits by a bus, and the boy, now an orphan, is reduced to stealing and sleeps on the street. Now more than ever he is determined to contact his disappeared father and is suspicious of the letter-writer. She doesn't take to him at first either, but eventually takes responsibility for him and invites him to her home, where he discovers her secret.

I passed out a number of times early on in the film, so I lost some transitions in the plot. The upshot, though, is that the boy has been granted a promise that Miss Busybody the scribe of the slums will take him personally to seek out his father in some remote village. The balance of the movie is comprised of this quest. In the process, the woman loses all of her money, they become stranded in tiny villages, and they befriend a very religious truck driver who gets close to them until he suddenly bolts, leaving them stranded in some godforsaken way station. The woman is flustered because she has no money, no transportation; she's been stripped of her customary lower middle class comforts. She blames the little boy for her sorry plight, but in spite of the mutual hostility that surfaces between them, they have obviously become very attached to one another. However, it is precisely because this "heartwarming" aspect of the tale is so conspicuously foregrounded, I find myself stubbornly digging into the background.

One of the sources of tension is the pair's contrary view of their quest. The woman sees the seemingly deadbeat dad as a drunkard and a wastrel; the boy sees him as a skilled carpenter who looks forward to being reunited with his son. The kid, though innocent like a child in certain ways, is also worldly and sophisticated and cynical like a peasant child in others. But he is completely idealistic about his father, a state of mind which is may be explainable by his homelessness and lack of options, but perhaps not. Of course, "home" is not just a physical location or a material possibility, it is also a state of mind, and for the poor the protection and proximity of family is an idea that approximates religious proportions. Home matters more because displacement is so real. This is the sense of loss and quest that I get from August Wilson, too.

Aside from the primitive and squalid conditions under which the people live and their ramshackle, atavistic infrastructure, I found myself chronically depressed by the mental deadness exuded from the culture of poverty. Some of the people are very warm and human, as those hardened and mentally rigidified by life often are, but their minds have been too curtailed by austerity. The religious truck driver is an evangelist, and has nothing to say but religious rubbish. So I concentrate more and more of my attention on the background, less on the heartstrings, more on the whys of people's actions and the structure of their motivations.

Finally, they come to an adventure which completely electrified me, no more dropping off to sleep. Having lost her very last remaining cash, the woman is at the end of her rope. No money to pay for transportation, no recourse but to walk from village to village. The pair gets caught up in a religious pilgrimage to appeal to the sacred heart of Christ, the Virgin, the works. The woman is visibly disgusted by the religiosity of these people and cries out, what have I done to deserve this?! This was a moment for me to savor. However, she gets mad at the boy and he gets mad and runs away, into the middle of the religious encampment. Immediately, she panics and chases after him, though she's lost track of him. Her scampering through the religious progression is surreal. There are candles everywhere, there are huts and tents on whose walls every square inch is taken up by photos of Christ with its sacred heart, of ribbons, and candles and icons: a more dense, profuse, and disgusting display of the Latin culture of Catholicism could not be imagined. Everybody is praying with great intensity; the woman rushes through each of the huts calling out for the boy, and faints seconds before he responds and runs to her.

They awaken together on the street in the morning. At least they have not lost one another, as desperate as they are. There are tents set up like a sideshow carnival. You can pay four Brazilian bucks to have your photo taken with the Virgin Mary. You can buy dresses and other goods. Suddenly, the boy has a chance inspiration. Some of the pilgrims seek to communicate with the spirits of their departed. So the boy sets up a booth for his traveling companion, advertising her as a letter-writer/medium who will write letters and send them to the dead for all the illiterate pilgrims, for a fee. Well, all these innocent, sweet, heartwarming peasants line up to pony up their spare cash and spill their deepest feelings and communicate their heartfelt messages to their departed loved ones.

After a while, the woman is rolling in dough, and the boy grins with glee at her huge wad of cash. Precisely at the moment when we ought to be pondering what she has just done, a buoyant moment is shared between the two main characters, and the question of the pathetic gullibility of the religiously befogged fades into the background. It's the background that interests me, though.

It is a priceless moment, seeing the reincarnation of her letter-writing career in the form of letters to the dead. A twist comes a bit later when the boy makes a move to burn the letters, but the woman refuses to dispose of them, at least not yet. Perhaps she recognizes that there is more than the success of a scam at stake, that these people have poured their souls into these letters, and one should take a moment to show some respect?

My moment of reflection is to contemplate how impoverished the culture of poverty truly is, how little of a heartwarming nature I find in it. To affirm the distance of the spectator and to refuse emotional identification with the events of the film; this is the contrary of the average person's reaction to such a presentation, also the contrary of the overt engineering of the spectator's reactions by the filmmaker. My subject matter is not only the presence, but the absence, the other of the drama.

Ultimately, the travellers close in on the boy's father's whereabouts after some false leads, but only approximately, as dad has vanished from every house he lived in. Finally, as they are about to give up, they happen upon the boy's grown-up brothers, who take them into their house as guests. The father has disappeared, and the two-grown-up brothers have different versions of the causes of his disappearance and the likelihood of his return. The older brother who is more confident of the father's return is very warm; he teaches the boy how to do carpentry. The two elder boys may be even more skilled carpenters than their father was.

Finally, the woman as letter-writer turns into a letter-reader for the first time. The elder sons present her with father's goodbye letter, which she finally reads. She adds the boy's name to the two sons mentioned in the letter, and we can't be absolutely sure that the little boy's name was really in the letter, or whether she added it just to make the boy feel better. We are also left uncertain as to what to make of the father's character. But in any event, this is the end of the journey, and what is to happen now?

Well, the woman makes up the boy's mind for him, in her customary sneaky and surreptitious manner. In the middle of the night or the wee hours of the morning, she sneaks out of her bedroom and places the letter to the elder boys together with the original letter written by the little boy's deceased mom to the father that she had pocketed on the mantelpiece, under a portrait of the father. Then she sneaks out the house, to catch a bus out of town seconds before the boy discovers she's missing. As the bus leaves the threshold of the village, the boy runs out into the street chasing the bus, crying, as he doesn't want her to part, while the woman is writing a letter to him on the bus explaining how she recovered from her father's abandonment of her decades ago, and how he is best off with his family, so he should remain behind with his brothers. She finds this parting equally painful, but when she looks at a tiny photo of them taken with the Virgin after their windfall, she smiles, at the same moment when the boy, realizing he can't catch up with the bus, pulls his copy of the same photo out of his pocket, and so consoled, smiles as well. They are united forever in memory.

Though I did not get to the point of breaking down weeping as I heard someone do somewhere in the back of the theater, I could not help but be profoundly moved at this moment. What, am I made of stone? Who knows how we shall balance out the equation of loss, home, quest, and connection?


One of my classic favorite films is Black Orpheus, which re-creates the timeless myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in the black slums of Rio during Carnival. The journey to Hades is replaced by spirit possession so characteristic of African religious survivals in the New World. The film was not made by a Brazilian, but it was filmed in Brazil in 1959, whose infrastructure looks somewhat dated even by 1959 American standards. One does not actually think of slums, because one doesn't see squalor as such. One sees the mountains, the colorful and imaginative costumes, the magnificent dancing, while listening to the ever-present music of the samba and the exquisite songs written by Carlos Joabim. We are told at some point that the people are poor, we learn that Orpheu carries a knife, but the film is so overwhelming in its lyricism, one is shaken to one's foundations by its exquisite beauty and by the primal vitality of life that has disappeared in a mechanized, urban environment. Long before the days of VCRs, I would go see the film whenever and wherever it was shown in Buffalo. I'd bring a couple of boxes of Kleenex with me and cry through several successive showings. This was the '70s, and this was where I was at.

I am rarely completely uncritical, and ultimately, before leaving Buffalo I came to some conclusions about the limitations of such lives and one's emotional identification with them from a distance. However, I had lots of emotion to spare back then, and I was into rampant emotionalism. Probably I would not have so much energy today for such emotional expenditure, but then was different; as some visiting dancer from the Alvin Ailey company once told his host, my best pal: "there goes Ralph feeling again."

Perhaps through repetition I have drained my capacity to respond to this film should I ever occasion to see it again. Different times evoke different moods. You wear things out and you cannot revive your original enthusiasm once exhaustion sets in. I am not the same person I was. My skepticism is more pronounced. At the time, I didn't mind the simplistic romance of Orfeu and Eurydice; it was cosmic, it was not mundane boy-meets-girl. Eurydice fell in love not just because Orfeu was handsome, popular, and a good party; she was touched to her foundations by the power of his music, and, in turn, he was touched by the emotional depth of her response. The story becomes spiritual, archetypal; its lyricism rises on the wings of an aching beauty and takes us to the threshold of the infinite. Yet this is myth, the infinite repetition of the same, a promise of the continuation of life even beyond the cycle ending in the death of individuals. As myth, though, it effaces history. It effaces the materiality of the slums. I can't be sure how I'd react upon seeing Black Orpheus again, but after seeing Central Station, I don't think I will ever be able to enjoy it quite the same way again.

[Ralph Dumain, Wed. 2 May 1999, 5:00 am]

(c) 1999, 2000 Ralph Dumain

(Edited & uploaded 11 September 2000)

Ralph Dumain

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