Pater / Patria: Central Station and the Search for Identity in Post-Collor Brazil

ll third-world texts are necessarily, I want to argue, allegorical; . . . they are to be read as what I will call national allegories . . . . (Jameson 69).

It is true that nations with long, complex histories and massively diverse peoples, cultures, and geographies face the enormous problem of self-definition that is imperative before the process of determining the road to a just and inclusive future can begin. Finding the exact voice to tell the story has been approached in various ways, but the differences between epic and postmodern narrative theories provide useful stances from which to contemplate the devices used to reach a comprehensive story that is both national and personal. In such instances, the narrative often becomes at once monologic and polyphonous. A bridge of understanding is created by the use of symbols, which in the case of Walter Salles’s Central do Brasil (Central Station, 1998), operate to accomplish the joining of past and present. These symbols unite the varied individual experiences to form a kind of universal account and demonstrate the accuracy of Jameson's conclusion concerning the allegorical nature of third-world texts.

Throughout the history of Brazil, the Northeast, particularly the sertão (backland), has formed a unique partnership with Brazilian national literature and in the twentieth century, with Brazilian cinema. The seasonal droughts, which can last for extensive periods of time, the harsh environment, and the vast expanses of uninhabited land inspired canonic texts such as Euclides da Cunha’s Os sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands, 1902), João Guimarães Rosa’s Grande sertão veredas (The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, 1956) and Jorge Amado’s Terras do sem fin (The Violent Land, 1943). In Brazilian film, we also see evidence of the sertão aesthetic in Limite (Limit, 1930, Dir. Mário Peixoto), the Vera Cruz production of O cangaceiro (The Bandit, 1953, Dir. Lima Barreto), and of course, Glauber Rocha’s Deus e o diabo na terra do sol (Black God, White Devil, 1964). With respect to the important role of the Northeast in terms of national identity, Sylvie Debs correctly points out that:

[. . . el Nordeste, y más precisamente el sertão, es también el desierto, con todas las consecuencias que esto acarrea: ahí donde no existe nada, todo está por hacer, todo es posible. De ahí el mito de la creación del mundo, siempre omnipresente, unido a la posibilidad de inventar brindada por el cine, para así inventar un país. El sertão ofrecía de esta manera un espacio favorable para una proyección nacional. (246)
[. . . the Northeast, and more precisely the sertão, is also the desert, with all of its inherent consequences: there where nothing exists, everything is possible, everything is unfinished. From the sertão emanates de omnipresent myth of the creation of the world, joined by means of film to the possibility of starting a new, to reinventing a country. In this way the sertão offered an appropriate space for creating a national film.]1

Though the sertão aesthetic never entirely disappeared from Brazilian cinematographic production, its relevance as a thematic background diminished somewhat during the 1980s. Nevertheless, the late 1990s witnessed a resurgence of the role of the sertão in Brazilian cinema in such films as Sertão das memórias (Landscape of Memories, 1996, Dir. José Araújo), Baile perfumado (Perfumed Ball, 1997, Dir. Paulo Caldas and Lírio Ferreira), a more postmodern version of the cangaceiro theme of the 1950s and finally, the subject of this study, Central Station. As with the Cinema Novo (New Cinema of the 1960s) productions, many of these films, as my epigraph suggests, are allegorical in nature and seek to explain and identify Brazil and its people. As Debs further indicates: “La presencia del Nordeste en esta recuperación cinematográfica [of the latter half of the 1990s] estriba en dos puntos esenciales: la descentralización del eje Río/São Paulo que se concretiza en el trabajo de los realizadores del Nordeste . . . y su análisis conciso del estado de conciencia y alma del ciudadano brasileño contemporáneo...(254) [The reason for the presence of the Northeast in the films of the latter half of the 1990s is twofold: the decentralization of the Rio/São Paulo mise-en-scène, which is solidified in the work of those who dwell in the Northeast . . . and the concise analysis of the state of consciousness and the soul of the contemporary, Brazilian citizen . . .]

A substantiation of Debs’s observation may be seen in Walter Salles’s Central Station, which recounts a journey opposite to that of the cinemanovistas of the 1960s. The latter referred to that of the retirantes (pilgrims from the Northeast escaping drought) who fled the misery of the Northeast and populated the urban areas of southern Brazil. Not only social but climactic conditions, particularly the sun, were the culprits of the misery faced by the retirantes. In order to reflect accurately the intensity of the sun in the sertão, Luiz Carlos Barreto, an innovator in photographic technique, removed the filters from his cameras in films such as Vidas secas (Barren Lives, 1963, Dir. Nelson Pereira dos Santos) and Luzia homem (1987, Dir. Fábio Barreto). In Central Station,

[Dora y Josué] vienen al Nordeste a buscar lo que los retirantes perdieron cuando huyeron de la miseria y buscaron trabajo en el Sur. Asistimos una inversión en el sentido migratorio: se huye del cinismo y de la indiferencia del Sur para encontrar los valores tradicionales del Norte. (Debs 258-59) [Dora and Josué] go to the Northeast to look for that which the retirantes lost when they fled the misery in search of work in the south. We witness a reverse, migratory trajectory: they flee the cynicism and the indifference of the south in order to find the traditional values of the north.

In terms of the effect of the camera, Salles portrayed the sertão not only in color (as opposed to the lower budgeted films of the 1960s2) but with softer earth tones and less emphasis on the sun’s intensity. Clearly, the implication is to suggest that despite the challenges that it presents, the sertão is a desirable place—it is home. In the “Afterword” of his book Magical Reels, John King indicates that “the theme of the return home is the basis of Central Station” (272).

The return home is difficult, including the means of overcoming colonial film preferences. Throughout Latin American history, the dominant, elite culture often appropriated national identity and attempted to fashion it according to European or North American codes. Traditionally this has been true for Brazilian cinema, which has frequently exhibited aspects of imitation or hybridity. Even Cinema Novo, which attempted to free Brazilian cinema from Hollywood’s tenacious grip, was a hybrid form of the Italian neo-realism model. Without a doubt, Salles’s film reflects this tendency toward hybridity, yet the quest for meaning and identity that prevails in Central Station overwhelmingly overshadows any cinematic anthropophagy that may be present. Notwithstanding the origins of the film’s aesthetic hybridity, it is my intention in this essay to highlight the necessarily allegorical nature of Central Station and to investigate its search for Brazilian identity not in the large urban areas of the coast but rather in the remote expanses of the sertão, which, as I will argue, represents the pater/patria or cultural and spiritual foundations of the nation.

The history of the film’s reception is itself a complex story. Despite its premier at the January 1998 Sundance Film Festival, the script for Central Station won international recognition and the top prize two years earlier at Sundance. In the two years that transpired between the international recognition of Central’s script and its international premiere, director Walter Salles secured funding through French television and the Riofilme Institute. After premiering at Sundance, Central Station went on to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in February and debuted in Brazil in April. Moreover, in 1998 Central Station received a nomination for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, an honor that it, unfortunately, did not win. Even before its grand debut in Brazil, Walter Salles thanked the people of the Brazilian Northeast by screening Central Station in Cruzeiro do Nordeste, Pernambuco (Bom Jesus do Norte in the film) where Salles filmed scenes of the Nossa Senhora das Candeias (Our Lady of the Candles) religious celebration. According to journalist Kléber Mondonça Filho, “Ele [Salles] quis que o lugarejo visse a obra da qual participou e onde permanecerá registrado para sempre. Salles afirmou, como já havia dito antes, que era ‘uma questão de retribuição’, uma espécie de fechamento de um ciclo” (1).[“He [Salles] wanted the villagers who had participated in the production to see the film and the place where they would be remembered forever. Salles affirmed, as he had before, that this was a way to repay the participants, a kind of closure”].

In locating the plot predominantly in the Northeast, the filmic aspects of Central Station emphasize the usual spaces inhabited by the voiceless masses. In his choices, one can detect Salles’s humanistic, documentary style and the influence of Cinema Novo. Normally, when film directors choose Rio de Janeiro as a mise en scène, the viewer would expect to see tourist attractions such as Sugarloaf Mountain, the beaches and perhaps the Corcovado. In Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s Rio 40 graus (Rio 40 Degrees, 1954), the opening credits show all of the favorite tourist attractions from a bird’s eye view. Five years later, French director Marcel Camus would make Rio de Janeiro and Brazil famous with his exuberantly exotic rendering of its "favelas" (slums) in Orfeu negro (Black Orpheus, 1959). Filmed in color, Black Orpheus included images of the beaches of Copacabana and/or Sugarloaf Mountain as backdrops in nearly every shot of the favela. These films clearly intended to remind the viewer that Brazil was enjoying a period of “ordem e progresso” [“order and progress”], the positivistic motto found on the Brazilian flag, and that its cities were as modern and beautiful as any city of the first world.

However, Central Station takes a more postmodern (and cinemanovista) approach by ignoring Rio’s tourist attractions and the high-class district of Rio de Janeiro while focusing on the poor and working-class sectors. In this sense, Central Station is similar to Carlos Diegues’s 1999 film, Orfeu, a modern, cinematic adaptation of Vinícius de Moraes’s 1954 play,Orfeu da Conceição. In Orfeu, Diegues exchanges the exoticized favela of Camus’s Black Orpheus for a more realistic rendering of Rio’s urban centers. In an anonymous article, the journal Cahiers de Cinema described Salles’s postmodern vision of Rio de Janeiro as such:

le Rio de Salles n’est pas celui de Copacabana ni du Pain de sucre ; ce n’est pas non plus, comme dans Como nascem os anjos, celui des bidonvilles ou des maisons élégantes. Le Rio de Salles est, précisément, celui de la Central do Brasil, la gare de chemins de fer qui tourne le dos à la plage et au plaisir, lieu sinistre où se croisent chaque jour des milliers d’êtres dans la détresse, un lieu autour duquel vivent des personnages habitués à un milieu hostile que Salles filme avec une dureté presque documentaire. (54)

Salles’s Rio is not the one represented by Copacabana or Sugarloaf Mountain; moreover, it is not, like in Como nascem os anjos [How Angels are Born, 1996, Dir. Murilo Salles], a city of shantytowns or beautiful houses. Salles’s Rio is like Central Statio, the train station that ignores the beaches and pleasure, a sinister place where every day one passes by thousands of suffering souls, a place around which live people who are accustomed to a difficult environment that Salles filmed with a documentary indifference.

With its prominent tower, Central Station, built in 1945, was intended to be a symbol of racial and social democratization, a place where all races and social classes would meet. However, Salles’s film depicts a different reality in that the Central Station became a point of convergence for cynical hustlers like Dora, violence, street children, and working class travelers. It is a reminder of the many unfulfilled promises made by civilian and military governments. The train station is also “. . . un lugar de paso, un lugar de tránsito, un punto de llegada, un punto de salida, un punto que no lleva a ninguna parte. Aquí habían llegado millares de retirantes escapándose del Nordeste” (Debs 258). [“… a passing, transitory place, where people arrive and depart, a place that leads nowhere. This is where thousands of retirantes had arrived as they escaped from the Northeast.”]. The first shots of the Central Station not only reveal the decrepit condition of the trains and the station itself but also emphasize the marginalization of the people who are there. The camera deliberately centers on various individuals who pay Dora to write and send letters for them, generally to places in the Northeast. Additionally, the point-of-view shots behind Dora and behind her clients (shot / reverse shot) suggest a feigned attempt at intimacy and comradeship between one Brazilian to another.

Despite excellent filming, Central Station contains some scenes that some Brazilians consider cliché. For example, when a young thief steals an insignificant object from a vendor in the Central Station, Pedrão (played by renowned actor, Otávio Augusto), a private security guard hired by vendors, murders him in broad daylight in front of witnesses. According to Solano Portela: Sabemos que execuções ocorrem no Brasil, mas geralmente na calada da noite, sob o auxílio do anonimato e, via de regra, relacionadas com o tráfico de entorpecentes. A prática apresentada no filme é, no mínimo, questionável como visão realista do dia-a-dia.(2)

We know that executions take place in Brazil, but generally they occur and the dark of night, anonymously, and usually associated with drug trafficking. The execution presented in the film is, at the very least, questionable as a realistic, daily event.

My opinion is that Salles inserted this scene most likely out of his own ignorance of the reality of the social conditions of the working class in Brazil. Salles seems to include this awkward metatext in the film in order to criticize a social ill that mars Brazil’s international identity.

Two other clichés that Solano Portela identifies in Central Station are the unproven and illegal adoptions of children by foreigners and the trafficking in human organs: “Ocorre que esse é um outro clichê moderno, construído em cima de declarações nunca seriamente comprovadas, cuja representação, no filme, o coloca como parte da experiência diária dos brasileiros” (2). “Illegal adoption in Brazil is another modern cliché, arising from accusations that are never proven, representations which, in the film, portray it as a daily experience for Brazilians.”]. Nevertheless, Portela is most likely unaware of the many undocumented cases of both of the “clichés” that he highlights. More importantly, however, is the parallel that we can draw between the cold-blooded murdering and dismemberment of children and the totalitarian nature of the twenty-year military regime in Brazil. In these types of extremist governments, persons are dehumanized and are not viewed as attached to family units. In fact, dehumanization is the primary instrument of social control in totalitarian governments. A humorous example of this truism is the feijoada (a bean soup) scene in Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s Macunaíma (1969). Venceslau Pietro Pietra, the character who represents the military government, invites guests to attend a feijoada, yet unbeknownst to them, they are to become the main ingredient. By lottery, guests are chosen and are forced like sheep to jump into a swimming pool full of feijoada and previous victims of Pietro Pietra’s cannibalism.

Salles’s occasional disconnection with the reality of the marginalized may be due to his upper middle class pedigree. The son of a wealthy banker, Walter Salles began his cinematic career as a documentarian. In 1986, he founded a small advertising and documentary agency, Video-Filmes, an experience that permitted Salles to perfect his skills as a cineaste. In 1990, shortly after the elimination of Embrafilme by then-president Fernando Collor de Mello, Salles found himself without sufficient funding to complete a documentary project about the city of Rio de Janeiro. After Collor de Mello’s impeachment four years later, Salles released his most important non-fiction film, Socorro nobre (Life Somewhere Else, 1995), which recounts the correspondence between a thirty-six year-old prison inmate and artist Frans Krajcberg. Salles’s introduction into feature films began in 1991 with A grande arte (The Great Art) and then later with his great success in Terra estrangeira (Foreign Land, 1995), which he directed with Daniela Thomas. This last film was a foreshadowing of Central Station in that Salles addressed the theme of Brazilian national identity during the economic crisis during the Collor de Mello administration. Salles’s preoccupation with the problems of rapid urbanization and national allegory also allowed him to collaborate once again with Daniela Thomas on a one-hour film entitled O primeiro dia (Midnight, 1998). Like Foreign Land and Central Station, Salles used two characters to create an allegory for the quest for national identity. Since the debut of Central Station, Salles has directed a number of films including Lion’s Den (2009), Eye of the Storm (2009), On the Road, Stories on Human Rights (2008), Linha de passe (Life is What You Make It, 2008), Dark Water (2005), Diarios de motocicleta (Motorcycle Diaries, 2004), Armas e paz (Guns and Peace, 2002), and Abril despedaçado (Behind the Sun, 2001).


The latter half of the 1990s marked, in Salles’s words, a “renaissance in Brazilian cinema . . .” (Kaufman 19). After the colonial mimesis representative of the chanchadas (a Brazilian comedy, often musical, of the 1930s and 40s), the Vera Cruz productions of the 1940s and 1950s and the hybrid productions of Cinema Novo (New Brazilian Cinema of the 1950s and 60s) attempted to avoid what Tânia Pellegrini calls “hablar inglés” [“to speak English”] that is to say, to avoid returning to the familiar imitations of Hollywood production style (169). Nevertheless, Central Station is a hybrid of Cinema Novo and the plurality of genres found within the New Brazilian Cinema of the late 1990s (154). Central Station clearly reflects aesthetic hybridity in terms of the Cinema Novo project of attempting to define Brazil and the Brazilian people while also modernizing the theme to include the cynicism and directionless plight of post-Collor de Mello Brazil. Since Cinema Novo committed cinematic cannibalism in adopting many of the characteristics of Italian neo-realism—that is to say, location shooting, using nonprofessional actors to portray working-class subjects, and the demonstration of how environment influences these subjects—it comes as no surprise that these characteristics are evident in Central Station. The following statement by Glauber Rocha in reference to Cinema Novo still applies to New Brazilian Cinema:

Brazil and its people became the central preoccupation of the new group of Brazilian filmmakers. They avoided both the touristic and picturesque attitudes that characterized co-productions and the cultural alienation inherent in an enterprise like Vera Cruz. Their goal was to study in depth the social relations of each city and region as a way of critically exposing, as if in miniature, the socio-cultural structure of the country as a whole. To take the people as theme, to give human form to fundamental conflicts, to make the people the center and master of the cinematic instrument. (273)

This is the same humanistic approach that motivates Salles’s cinematic interpretation of the economic and social realities in Brazil during the latter half of the 1990s.

Similar to Foreign Land and Midnight, Central Station focuses on two central characters, Dora (Fernanda Montenegro), a retired schoolteacher and young Josué (Vinícius de Oliveira, who would later star in Linha de Passe), orphaned after a bus tragically kills his mother outside the train station in Rio de Janeiro. The saga that ensues is not only Josué’s story but it is also an allegory for Brazil. As Fredric Jameson has stated, “. . . the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society” (69). Dora is a bitter and cynical and shares the remaining years of her lonely life with only one other person, Irene (Marília Pera), Dora’s lifelong friend who is also an unmarried, retired schoolteacher. The two represent different characteristics of the same generation that experienced the military coup d’état of 1964 in Brazil. Dora assimilates the political and social cynicism that resulted due to the dictatorship’s twenty years of failed promises while easygoing Irene simply adapts to the conditions that surround her. Irene is, perhaps, a more problematic figure in that she acts as an occasional accomplice to Dora’s cynicism while also distancing herself from Dora’s actions in order to serve as a moral voice. It is quite possible that they are, in fact, the same person with Irene acting as Dora’s alter ego.

In order to supplement her meager pension, Dora earns extra money by writing letters for unwary travelers who visit her kiosk in the Central Station. Imitating the actions of the malandros (crooks, scoundrels) of the street, Dora either destroys the letters or keeps them in a drawer, thus never fulfilling her business obligation to mail the letters. In this sense, Dora is similar to the Brazilian government that had been remiss in fulfilling its numerous, hollow promises to the people. It is worth noting that in the opening scenes, the film singles out individuals who wish to send their correspondence to family and friends either in the Northeast or in the more remote regions of the state of Minas Gerais. These scenes also suggest the postmodern notion of giving a voice (by means of the written word) to the otherwise unheard voice of the marginalized poor of large urban areas and the illiterate that originate primarily in Brazil’s Northeast. Of course, the difficulty here is that Dora “cooperates” with the power structure in silencing these voices when she deliberately fails to post the letters.

After the unexpected death of Josué’s mother, Dora persuades Josué to come home with her with the intention of selling him to an alleged adoption agency of the black market, which unbeknownst to Dora, deals in human organs. This scene may be interpreted in economic and political terms in that Dora represents the older, cynical Brazil while Josué symbolizes the younger generation and, metaphorically-speaking, the future of Brazil. Josué is, literally and figuratively, its lifeblood. Here we see that the cultural, political and economic hegemony often betrays Brazil’s future to neo-colonial and multinational concerns by mechanically auctioning off Brazil’s future for short-term political and economic gain. Thus, the notions of national identity and national culture are problematized and compromised. We can understand this betrayal in terms of popular culture, economics and politics. In the last century, Brazil (as did most of Latin America) experienced and today continues to experience cultural invasions by the United States in the areas of music, cinema, and television. Moreover, much of the Brazilian market is and has been firmly in the hands of multinational corporations while national entities often flounder and ultimately fail. The upside to this scene, however, is that Dora, spurred by what remains of her conscience, kidnaps Josué from the organ dealer, and both are forced to flee Rio de Janeiro. The solution, Salles seems to propose, is for Brazil to recapture what has been bartered away. This scene, therefore, not only intends to expose Brazil’s national plight but it also advocates messianic notions of saving Brazil from the slippery descent into neo-colonialism. To some degree, what Salles proposes is a rediscovery and reinstatement of brasilidade or “Brazilianness”.

With only an address, Josué insists on searching for his father in the sertão of the Northeast. Though Dora repeatedly attempts to rid herself of Josué, her destiny is intertwined with Josué and his search for his father. After an extended journey from Rio de Janeiro via bus, truck and pickup (all of which are the means of transportation of the working class majority of Brazilians), Josué and Dora arrive in the appropriately-named town of Bom Jesus do Norte (Good Jesus of the North) where they expect to find Josué’s father, Jesus. The road movie aspect of Central Station is the vehicle through which Dora and Josué discover their respective destinies and identities in a manner similar to the protagonist, Christian, in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. The road itself, indeed the multiplicity of roads, becomes the central symbol for the trip to personal and national understanding.

Unfortunately, the address in Bom Jesus do Norte that Josué has is no longer valid, yet fate leads them to a nearby settlement called Vila do João (likely a reference to São João, Saint John, on which I will elaborate later) where Dora and Josué meet the boy’s half brothers, Moisés and Isaías. Strangely, however, Josué identifies himself as “Gerardo” and not by his real name so that Moisés and Isaías initially do not know who Josué is. Even at the end of the film, viewers never know if this identity issue has been or will be resolved. Perhaps this is the personalized account of the national problem: Brazil’s true identity may never be discovered. Could this mean that Josué is no longer the person he was when he received that name, that is, that his life in the south has changed him profoundly (even at his young age) and that a gradual recovery of his genuine and pure Brazilian identity will be necessary (and may be unsuccessful)?

During the denouement, the illiterate Isaías and Moisés ask Dora to read a letter addressed to Ana Fontanele (Josué’s mother) sent by their father, Jesus, from Rio de Janeiro. Evidently, Jesus left Vila do João to search for Ana in Rio, thus retracing the retirantes’s journey from the sertão to Rio de Janeiro. At this point, no one really knows if Jesus is still in Rio or if he disappeared into the sertão as the townsfolk and the cynical son, Moisés, suspect. Here the epic and the postmodern merge. The symbolism of the participants’ voices makes use of the familiar epic to reveal their personal dilemma. The Biblical nature of Josué’s name and those of his half-brothers and his father are particularly significant in that they appropriately connect with the religious milieu of the Northeast. “Josué” could symbolize either Joshua, Moses’s assistant who led the Israelites into the Promised Land, or Joseph, the youngest son of Abraham who saved Egypt and the Hebrew slaves from famine. It is further possible that he represents an amalgam of both of these Biblical figures. In Central Station, Josué’s absent father, Jesus, possesses messianic qualities only in terms of his expected return to Vila do João. Josué’s two half-brothers are also symbolically important in Central. The name “Moisés” refers to the Hebrew patriarch who saved the enslaved Israelites from an Egyptian pharaoh but who also doubted God and was therefore denied entrance into the Promised Land. In Central Station, Moisés insists on clinging to the image of his father as a drunkard and denies that he will ever return to Vila do João. “Isaías”, on the other hand, is an allusion to the weeping prophet of the Old Testament who foretold the coming of the Messiah—Jesus, in the Christian tradition. In the film, Isaías reflects his namesake’s sensitivity and hope for the future by staunchly defending their father’s certain return.

It becomes clear to Dora that Josué belongs with his half-brothers and she therefore leaves Vila do João in the early morning without taking leave of the orphaned brothers. She boards a bus for an unknown destination as the rising sun of dawn begins to bear down on the sertão. This image of the rising sun, perhaps borrowed from the nineteenth century, foundational Brazilian narrative, O guarani, implies a new beginning for Josué and for the reformed Dora whose personal destiny remains ambiguous while her role as the wise and seasoned sophisticate from the city who guides the next generation to authenticity is absolutely clear. The unmailed letter to Josué’s father from his mother, placed on the makeshift shrine in his brothers’ house, suggests that a spiritual reunion of sorts will take place between the parents and lead the children to the sense of identity that they need to re-create their lives and, metaphorically, to re-create Brazil as the patria. It is understood that Josué has discovered his identity in Vila do João though the question of his father’s whereabouts remains unresolved.

Walter Salles’ training and experience as a documentarian is evident in the film especially during the scenes of the religious celebration in Bom Jesus do Norte. Salles and his crew traveled the Northeast videotaping nearly one hundred religious celebrations before deciding upon "Nossa Senhora das Candeias". The usage of this pilgrimage and celebration is quite important in that "Nossa Senhora das Candeias" is the Virgin who protects those who travel the roads. Despite the apparent backwardness of the Northeast in contrast to the sophisticated urban centers, Salles displayed objectivity and a respect for the role of religion in the quotidian aspects of its inhabitants’ lives. As Salles stated in an interview with Cineaste. . . as you enter the part of Brazil that is more anachronistic at first (the Northeast), but which, in fact, is more rich and more complex than the neo-liberal, urban Brazil that we have built, you soon realize that religion is something derived from necessity. When there is no one to ask things for in real life, you soon look to higher spiritual elements that can somehow bring you the support you don’t find on earth. In this sense, I was very moved by the incredible, spiritual force, the density and verticality of faith, in those areas. I really tried to respect this as much as I could. (Kaufman 20-21)

The theme of religion is fundamental to the development of Central Station since it attempts to link to human values long rejected and forgotten by the cynical urban areas. Unlike the armed resistance movements in the sertão inspired by religious zealots such as Antônio Conselheiro, Central proposes a peaceful revolution in the collective soul of Brazil (Debs 259). As in Black God, White Devil, Bye Bye Brasil and Crede-mi (Believe Me, 1996, Dir. Bia Lessa, Dany Roland), the importance of documenting the value of religion in the fabric of life in the Brazilian Northeast serves as a means through which Brazil can recover and embrace its identity. Moreover, according to José María Rodríguez Ramos:

Esse caráter documental está presente de modo mais notável na cena da procissão das Candeias que retrata a religiosidade popular e a abertura do diretor, pois mesmo que afirme não ter ou praticar a religião, não escamoteou essa realidade no filme” (1).
[“The documentary nature is evident particularly in the scene of the Candeias procession, which portrays popular religion and the openness of the director. Despite affirming that he does not have or practices a religion, [Salles] did not invent the reality of a popular religion in the film.”]

The role of religion in Central Station begins soon after Dora and Josué are marooned at the bus stop in a backwater town called Benemerêcia, a name that seems to contrast with the dire situation of the travellers. With no money for food or transportation, Dora and Josué meet César, a truck driver who offers to share his meal with them. Interestingly, we do not find out that César is an evangélico (“evangelical Christian”) until late in his appearance in the film. César gives them a ride and even unknowingly covers for Dora as Mr. Benê, a storeowner, nearly catches her shoplifting food. This inclusion of stealing food is reminiscent of Glauber Rocha’s “estética da fome” (“aesthetics of hunger”), which often drove the famine-stricken inhabitants of the Northeast to violence. Curiously, after he discovers that Dora did indeed steal food from his friend, Mr. Benê, César does nothing and even apologizes for Mr. Benê’s actions while accepting some of the stolen food from Dora.

The camera repeatedly offers several deliberate shots that insist on the significance of religion in the sertão. This religious aesthetic comes in several forms and in several degrees of sincerity: religious declarations posted on César’s truck such as “Com Deus é meu destino” (“My destiny is with God”), the figurines of saints in César’s truck and in Mr. Benê’s store, the singing of the hymn “How Great Thou Art” in the background as Dora puts on lipstick in the ladies’ room, but most importantly in the Candeias procession in Bom Jesus do Norte.3

The brief security that Dora and Josué experience with César is short-lived, however. He abandons them in a restaurant after Dora begins to insinuate a more intimate relationship. Nevertheless, they manage to secure a ride to Bom Jesus do Norte in a pickup full of pilgrims en route to the Candeias celebration. This scene seems to suggest that social (as well as spiritual) redemption is more likely obtainable collectively rather than individually. César, despite the pithy religious statements affixed to his truck, leaves Dora and Josué behind when it appears that more may be expected of him than complicity in the unintentional charity of Mr. Benê. On the other hand, the group of pilgrims is willing to take anyone along for the ride.

The benefit of Josué’s shorter experience with urban society becomes obvious during this part of the trip. Though Josué seems quite at home with the religious folk music, Dora is visibly uncomfortable. Furthermore, it is Josué who accepts a fellow passenger’s generous offer of sharing his meal. At this point, the contrast between the people of the sertão and the city is quite clear: the former are open and generous with the little that they possess while the latter are often suspicious of the actions of others. Dora is not entirely cynical, however. Upon reaching the outskirts of Bom Jesus do Norte, Dora begins to show signs of acculturation or, at the very least, she begins to recognize the value of religion. At a shrine outside a small church, Dora suggests that Josué leave his deceased mother’s handkerchief alongside the scribbled prayers of worshippers. By virtue of this gesture, it is clear that Dora is gradually returning to her roots located in popular culture. Moreover, she may also be suggesting that Josué symbolically leave his deceased mother behind in the city and concentrate on the search for his father / pater.

Despite the long journey to Bom Jesus do Norte, Dora and Josué fail to discover the whereabouts of the latter’s father and are once again left without money for food and bus tickets. At this point, Dora becomes exasperated and proceeds to denigrate Josué in a cruel fashion. On the verge of tears, Josué runs through the kneeling masses of worshippers attending the Candeias procession with Dora clamoring after him. The filming at this juncture reflects the solemnity of the moment. The multiple contrasts invariably capture the viewers’ attention: the darkness of night and the glowing and flickering of the candles held by the pilgrims along with the murmur of prayers interrupted by the ringing bells and the amplified voice of the clergy.

Not finding Josué, Dora enters a casa de milagres [“house of miracles”] and here commences a symbolic purification process complete with a symbolic death. All of the necessary elements for purification are present: fire (candles and fireworks), Dora’s physical and emotional suffering, and the backdrop of the prayers of the faithful. In this chapel, the confrontation with the hope evidenced by the worshipers and the prayers on the walls radically contrasts with Dora’s cynicism, bitterness and anger. As she begins to perceive that she is profaning a sacred place, Dora becomes disoriented and debilitated, and then she faints. The camera angle is particularly striking during these scenes as it revolves in a dizzying manner around Dora, thus evoking a hellish sensation of disorientation in the viewer. The function of the camera in this scene is remarkably similar to the first encounter between Manoel, Sebastião and the beatas (the devout) in Rocha’s Black God, White Devil. Soon after Dora loses consciousness, Josué discovers her in the casa de milagres and takes her outside into the fresh air of a street in the town, which suggests a successful version of Orpheus’s failed attempt to rescue of Eurydice from the underworld, thus contradicting the events in the Greek myth.4 Upon waking the next morning under Josué’s a rebirth provoked largely by the humanistic and spiritual values of the Northeast. In order to earn money for food, Josué, who represents the adaptable, enterprising spirit of the younger, post-dictatorship Brazil, encourages Dora to write letters for the illiterate pilgrims who wish to send letters to São João and to their families. Thus, Dora’s letter-writing career has come full circle except that now, due to her transformation, she posts the letters. It is clear that Dora now comprehends the value of the sacred as well as her important role in the conversion of the oral discourse of the illiterate into written text.

Throughout Central Station, the repetition of the family aesthetic intends to remind the viewer, by means of metaphor, of the orphaned nature of Brazil due to past and present political deception and oppressive, economic forces beyond the control of the masses. In the initial scenes in the Central Station, Josué expresses a desire to meet the father (an idealized notion of father = pater) that he does not know and supposes is still alive. Josué’s idealized perception of his father contrasts sharply with his mother’s vituperative comments toward her husband in her first letter. Similar to Dora’s bitter memories of her absent father, Ana only remembers her husband’s failings and weaknesses. Clearly, these common attitudes from an older generation of Brazilians parallel this generation’s view of the failed promises and abuses of the Brazilian governments past and present. Perhaps Dora’s psychological issues relating to her father may better be understood in Jungian terms. That is to say that she, as an adolescent, attempted to realize the normal break from parental influences despite the impossibility of completely erasing such impressions upon her life (Mullahy 129-131). Furthermore, it is clear that Dora’s relationship with her father was severely dysfunctional thus giving rise to her bitter and cynical reaction to Josué’s father, Jesus. As Mullahy points out regarding Jung’s theses regarding the evolution of the Oedipus and Electra Complex, “If adults are not able to free themselves spiritually, the Oedipus or Electra complex gives rise to conflict” (136-37).5 Dora is only able to free herself spiritually (and thus find her identity) once she begins to recognize herself in Josué and in his search for his father. When Josué runs from her during the Candeias procession in Bom Jesus do Norte, Dora reaches the cathartic moment that will be the vehicle for the resolution of this Jungian conflict.

The film also provides other instances of the absent father figure, the pater and, metaphorically, the patria. When Dora sells Josué to the female adoption broker—a maternal image—an obscure male figure is also present in the apartment but he is never seen; the camera only provides a close-up shot of his mouth as he shouts obscenities and threats when Dora forcibly removes Josué from the apartment. This close-up shot is a filmic dismemberment of this character and clearly linked to his profession as a human organ dealer. In this representation of the male figure, the viewer witnesses a negative image of the father (pater) figure.

Later, on the bus to Bom Jesus do Norte, Josué observes the male passengers and interrogates Dora as to their parental status. The ever-cynical Dora dismisses all of them except for one whom she admits could be a father but to whom she disparagingly refers as palhaço, or clown. It is at this point that Dora reveals to Josué that her mother died when she was his age, thus making a connection with the orphaned boy. Josué’s obsession with father figures continues with César the truck driver. In the truck cabin, Josué interrogates him as to his family status to which César replies that “a minha mulher é a estrada” [“the road is my wife”]. Shortly thereafter, when César abandons Dora and Josué, the aesthetic of the absent father is repeated once more. It is entirely possible that César, through his intimate relationship with the road (a reference to his profession), is as well engaged in a metaphorical quest for his destiny and his identity in a Brazil with an unknown but hopeful future. His mistake, however, was succumbing to his fears and not linking arms with fellow pilgrims, Josué and Dora.

Finally, after Dora’s metamorphosis and a full day of letter writing in Bom Jesus do Norte, Dora and Josué have their picture taken with the image of São João. The resulting photo renders a family image complete with the child (Josué), the mother (Dora) and the father (São João). The photograph with an inanimate albeit spiritual father reinforces the metaphorical issue of the search for the absent father (pater as well as patria) while subtly emphasizing a change in personal and collective direction and the need for a radical change in the national soul. The image of São João suggests a clear reference to Saint John, who in popular culture indicates that the faithful “[deve] mudar [seus] rumos para encontrar a luz, sugerindo que o caminho para isso é a meditação, a interiorização, a reflexão, pois São João ensina que todas as respostas estão e serão encontradas dentro de nós." [the faithful should] change his direction in order to find the light, which suggests that the path to enlightenment is meditation, internalization, and reflection since Saint John teaches that all answers are and will be found within us.”] (Jardim Waldorf). Additionally, the São João image suggests the Festa de São João (“Saint John Festival”) during which, in some cases, the particpants ignite a bonfire, “imagem em que a luz simboliza a sabedoria, a luz interior e o calor do amor, representando o movimento da sabedoria capaz de iluminar o pensamento, aquecendo o coração."" [image in which the light symbolizes wisdom, the warmth of love and the light that burns within us, representing the movement of wisdom that is capable of enlightening one’s thinking, warming the heart.](Jardim Waldorf). A change of destiny, a mollification of her views of the pater / patria, and a change in the way she perceives life is precisely what Dora experiences.

What is quite significant about Central Station is the inclusion of a multiplicity of voices that collaborate to problematize the Western notions of nation and national identity. Nevertheless, when one carefully examines the allegorical discourse advanced by Walter Salles (a member of the cultural and social elite), it becomes clear that this discourse is at once dialogical and monolithic, a very odd pair of bedfellows indeed. Unlike the foundational novels of the nineteenth century in post-colonial Brazil, written primarily by Gonçalves de Magalhães, Gonçalves Dias, and José de Alencar, the polyphony of Central Station is indeed evident. Nevertheless, the film employs an anachronistic, monolithic discourse in which the realization (or reestablishment) of national identity is the primary objective. Perhaps this odd combination mirrors the dichotomies of Brazil itself.

An additional peculiarity of narrative mix is that Central’s primary, Northeastern mise en scène is similar to that of Brazil’s nineteenth century, Indianist narrative and recalls the nation’s mythic creation in the birth of Moacir, the first “Brazilian”.6 Furthermore, the foundational novels often resorted to epic themes in which the “noble” savages lived in harmony with Nature and with each other in a paradisiacal milieu. Such is the discourse of Central Station, which endeavors to deconstruct the Rio de Janeiro / São Paulo cultural hegemony in favor of reconstructing Brazilian identity based upon the nation’s mythic origins in the Northeast. Here, we see a harmony of sorts, and evidence of the racial amalgamation to which German naturalist Karl Friedrich Philipp von Martius referred in his 1843 essay “How the History of Brazil Should Be Written”: Anyone who undertakes to write the history of Brazil . . . should never lose sight of the elements which contributed to the development of man there. These diverse elements come from the three races . . . the present population consists of a novel mixture, whose history therefore has a very particular stamp.(23)

Despite its history of popular uprisings, the Salles national model (the Northeast) is not deconstructed by the successive, and always complementary and substitutive, interpretations . . . (Chanady x). Nor is it characterized by what Homi Bhabha refers to as a place of ,I.“. . . cultural difference and the heterogeneous histories of contending peoples, antagonistic authorities, and tense cultural locations” (299). The nation, or national identity that Salles seems to propose, is more akin to Benedict Anderson’s idea of an “imagined community” where the people collectively recognize their status as part of a collective united by language and culture.

Walter Salles presented two unique voices in Central Station that, by detailing their individual searches, demonstrate their unanimity with the rest of the people of Brazil. The differences and similarities in their stories, indeed in the stories of all Brazilians, are incidental and serve to highlight the identical quality of the search. Regardless of where one begins, one will eventually find the road to the Northeast, to a spiritual and collective salvation of sorts in the patria. The landmarks provided by symbols of shared history, family structure, and religion, point unerringly in the right direction.


1. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine.

2. Glauber Rocha also used color in such films as Terra em transe (Land in Anguish, 1967).

3. According to Portela, Brazilian evangelicals do not use religious statues in their faith. Therefore, Salles has erroneously but innocently misrepresented Brazilian evangelicals.

4. The Greek myth, however, indicates that Eurydice was forced to return to the underworld because she disobeyed Pluto’s condition for salvation by looking back at the underworld while on the journey with Orpheus to the upper world.

5. We must bear in mind that Jung broke with his mentor, Freud, with respect to the latter’s emphasis on the sexual aspects of the parent-child relationship. Jung thought primarily in terms of non-sexual, emotional relationships between parent and child.

6. The mestizo offspring of the Portuguese conquistador, Martim Soares, and the Tabajara princess, Iracema, whose name represents an anagram for “America” according to Doris Sommer. The Uruguayan “epic” poem Tabaré also follows this aesthetic in that its protagonist, Tabaré, is the offspring of the union between a female, Spanish (read “white”) colonist and an indigenous nobleman.

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi. Nation and Narration. Ed. Homi Bhabha. London: Routledge, 1990.

Central Station (Central do Brasil). Dir. Walter Salles. Perf. Fernanda Montenegro, Marília Pera, and Vinicius de Oliveira. Sony Films, 1998. Film.

Chanady, Amaryll. Introduction. Latin American Identity and Constructions of Difference. Ed. Amaryll Chanady. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Debs, Sylvie. “El Nordeste, treinta años después del Cinema Novo.” Archivos de la Filmoteca. 36 (octubre 2000): 242-259.

“état du Monde: Le Brésil”. Cahiers du Cinéma. 526 (juillet-aout 1998): 52-54.

“Festa de São João.” Jardim Waldorf Rumo do Girassol. N.d. Web. 2 August 2010.

Kaufman, Anthony. “Sentimental Journey as National Allegory: An Interview with Walter Salles.” Cineaste. 24.1: (1998): 19-21.

King, John. Magical Reels: A History of Cinema in Latin America. New York: Verso, 2000.

Jameson, Fredric. “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Social Text. 15 (Fall, 1986): 65-88.

Martin, Michael, ed. New Latin American Cinema Vol. II. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1997.

Martius, Karl Friedrich Philipp von. “How the History of Brazil Should Be Written.” Perspectives on Brazilian History. Ed. E. Bradford Burns. New York: Columbia UP, 1967.

Mendonça Filho, Kléber. “Central do Brasil leva cinema e política ao sertão.” Cruzeiro do Nordeste. (23 March 1998). Web. 12 March 2001.

Mullahy, Patrick. Oedipus Myth and Complex: A Review of Psychoanalytic Theory. New York: Grove, 1955.

Pellegrini, Tânia. “El cine brasileño de los años noventa: cuestión de identidad.” Cuadernos Americanos. 75 (1999): 153-172.

Portela, Solano. “Central do Brasil, sem ufanismos.” N.p. N.d. Web. 12 March 2001.

Rocha, Glauber. “History of Cinema Novo.” Martin 275-294.

Rodriguez Ramos, José Maria. “Central do Brasil, coração do Brasil.” N.p. N.d. Web. 12 March 2001.

Salles, Walter. “Statements on Central do Brasil.” N.p. N.d. Web. 1 August 2010.