Central do Brasil (Central Station):  Coconut Milk with Coca-Cola aftertaste

In the Wake of Cinema Nôvo

by Felix Rebolledo Volume 9, Issue 6 / June 2005 36 minutes (8769 words)

January 2005 marked the 40th anniversary of the publishing of Glauber Rocha’s manifesto An Aesthetic of Hunger which called on filmmakers to create films in “a style appropriate to the real Brazil, to articulate a social thematic together with a production strategy into a truly revolutionary esthetic.” [1]

In it, Rocha defined Cinema Nôvo as “an on-going process of exploration that is making our thinking clearer, freeing us from the debilitating delirium of hunger. The Cinema Nôvo cannot continue to develop if it is consigned to a marginal existence in the overall economic and cultural processes of the Latin American continent.” [2] Inevitably, in the last forty years, history has marched on and Brazil and its cinema have moved forward even though the road has been bumpy. Since its introduction in 1898 by Italo-Brazilian Affonso Segreto, [3] film production in Brazil has had more than its fair share of reversals of fortune: between American colonial predation, a lack of technological infrastructure, a lack of financial backing, censorship by military dictatorships, and fluctuations in interest for domestic product at home and abroad, the struggle for an indigenous film industry addressing the identity and cultural concerns of the Brazilian people has not been easy.

Cinema Nôvo arose in the 1950’s to address and find solutions to these issues and until the early seventies it served as the aesthetic conscience of Brazilian cinema. As a movement Cinema Nôvo closed shop in 1974, and for almost twenty years largely as a result of the ascendancy of television and censorship most of these concerns were more or less either suppressed or sublimated only to re-emerge in the 1990’s.

In 1990, President Fernando Collor de Melho looking to please Jack Valenti et al. puts the kibosh on the Brazilian film industry by dismantling Embrafilme. Brazil went from an average of 100 films produced and released in 1969 when Embrafilme was founded to a mere 2 in 1992. [4] But since Collor de Melho’s impeachment resulting from charges of corruption that same year, Brazil has “achieved and enjoyed—through a series of improved laws regarding tax incentives—a resurgent interest in regaining its cinematic identity. This period (1993-1998) became generally known as the “Retomada do Cinema Brasileiro_” (Reinstatement of Brazilian Cinema).” [5] During that period, the polemics on Brazilian identity as expressed through _Cinema Nôvo once again become topical and with Central do Brasil Walter Salles joined the fray.


On the surface, Central do Brasil is a melodrama of transformation organized around an odd-couple composed of Josué, a nine year-old boy, and Dora, a crusty sexagenarian retired school-teacher, who embark on a cross-country quest for the boy’s father. However, the various narrative elements, visual allusions and themes point to a variety of possible interpretations to the underlying drives: if one is to account for the wealth of significations, “an adequate analysis of the film, therefore, must go beyond the represented fiction (the diegesis).” [6] The film can be interpreted as an allegory on the writing process, as an allegorical quest for the source of Brazilian identity as represented by Dora’s transformation, or as a Christian religious allegory inviting “a theological reading as the story of human beings struggling to maintain a relationship to an absent God.” [7]

“The film’s densely metaphorical style virtually pleads for allegorical interpretation even while its internal organization frustrates and defies the interpreter searching for a unifying “key” or implicit vision of the world.” [8]

A People Wanting to Tell Stories

Although the epistolary side of Central do Brasil comes from Socorro Nobre, a film Salles made in 1995 about the correspondence between Polish sculptor Frans Krajcberg— exiled in Brazil after World War Two— and a woman inmate serving time in a high-security penitentiary in Bahia, Central do Brasil can be construed as an allegory for a writer’s transformation by life and experience from being a hack writer processing other people’s stories, to understanding the need to tell those stories, and ultimately tapping into the liberating side of one’s creativity to write one’s own stories. (Josué can be interpreted as the little nagging voice egging the writer on to write truthfully from the heart.) Dora is no bumbling Macabéa (from A hora da Estrela, Susana Amaral 1985) on the typewriter; she’s the real thing. She writes her stories the traditional way, with pen and paper—she’s a schoolteacher with all the implied responsibilities as a role model resulting from her vocation, flavoured with all the cynicism and disillusionment that an ex-civil servant living on a meager pension can muster. She’s no Mary Poppins, as we witness her transformation from a curmudgeonly old hag to a caring, benevolent, warmhearted grandmother with her care’s best interests at heart. Dora’s transformation as a person and as a writer can be tied in to a broader, more satisfying interpretation—the quest for the “source” of Brazil’s identity.

From the beginning of the film, images of masses of people emerging from trains onto platforms juxtaposed with close ups of individuals relating their own personal stories establishes the thématique of a people wanting to tell their stories en masse. It’s an expression of pride and of belonging and a validation of the self and it seems like the most natural thing to do. Brazilian society is a melting pot of white, black, indigenous and mestizo and the Central Station is like a cauldron where the human feijoada all comes together and the shared culture is what keeps the sauce from separating. It’s not for nothing that on the desk she writes her letters, every time she positions a sheet of paper she does it on her desktop map of Brazil. The stories that she is “notarizing” are about defining the relationship of the self to others i.e. identity, and taken as a whole they create a shared or common identity i.e. society. Even the discrete presence of I.D. card photo stands in the background of Dora’s stall point in this direction.

The photographs in Central do Brasil could easily be made to stand in for Brazilian film as definers of identity but they also drive interpretation towards other readings. “Starting with their use by the Paris police in the murderous roundup of Communards in June 1871, photographs became a useful tool of modern states in the surveillance and control of their increasingly mobile populations. In another version of its utility, the camera record justifies, as a photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture.” [9] At the beginning of the film, photographs can be read as a control on the mobility of its population i.e. oppression, but with Josué’s picture the photograph assumes the second interpretation—it becomes “incontrovertible evidence” that the photographed person did indeed exist. The theme of photographs as evidence is carried to the extreme as depicted within the “Casa dos Milagres.” The manifestation of the multitude of images (variety of personal stories) is reminiscent of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo—(Argentine Mothers of the Disappeared) whose sons, husbands and fathers disappeared or were “suppressed” in many Latin American countries. Dora is forced by the overwhelming presentation of evidence to accept and repent for denying (i.e. been a willing participant in the suppression of) the richness and variety of Brazilians’ experience—as a letter writer. She breaks down when she realizes that Josué is just one story amidst a sea of stories possibly each one as intense and as meaningful as the one she is living. The next scene shows Dora sleeping on a sidewalk with her head in Josué’s lap, a gender-inverted Piéta which tells us that tradition will be nursed back to health (restored) by faith in the future.

The suppression of a people’s stories is censorship —whether it is self-censorship because of feelings of inadequacy, fear, illiteracy or ignorance or censorship imposed by others: teachers, government censors, the financial demands of the medium or the taste and fashions of culture, etc.— and the film makes the argument that there is no need for it once one realizes the “wealth“ that’s there. What is great about the stories from the people in Central do Brasil is that they are so forthcoming, genuine and unfettered, and when they collide with Dora’s lies, small-time censorship and ridicule, one can see parallels to the demeaning and petty censorship of a bureaucratic military Brazilian filmmakers were forced to endure. Only much later, after Dora goes through her conversion and discovers the need for telling those stories, is she capable of commiserating with the people and understanding the significance of transmitting those stories. And only then, does her mission to find Josué’s father take on meaning and urgency—the Casa dos Milagres miracle is Dora’s realization that the stories of the people are the source of identity and at the same time the expression of these “neo-realist” stories are economically viable, even if it is only through her letter writing. The picture of Dora and Josué with the Saint is “incontrovertible evidence” that Dora’s realization is feasible even though it is reified with the Saint as a “false-prophet” stand-in within the trinity as source or core of Brazil’s identity.

Road Movie

Like all road movies, the primary drive is one of transformation from the starting point to their destination. As Salles puts it: ”The main interest that I have in road movies is that the psychological arc of the main characters is always extremely interesting. They have to escape from that shelter they live in at the beginning and face the unknown. And the idea of facing the unknown breaks the mold in which they feel secure and they have to respond to a world that they cannot control anymore.” [10]

The road trip serves as a metaphor for life in fast-forward where the road brings on challenges and situations at a faster rate than life normally would. The images of migration through and away from the sertão to the city abound in Cinema Nôvo. Vidas Secas, Macunaima, Bye Bye Brasil, Deus eo Diabo na Terra do Sol, etc. But Salles’ back-to-the-future ride takes Josué and Dora away from Rio in the same way that Ciço and Dasdô in Bye Bye Brasil were brought to Rio or the unemployed migrate from the northeastern sertão looking for work in Sao Paolo in Brasil Verdade. [11] In a weird kind of parallel Josué leaves Rio with Dora the same way that Manuel and his wife leave the sertão__—after his mother is killed. The via dolorosa of traversing the __sertão with one’s belongings in a case on top of one’s head like Vitoria does in Vidas Secas is reprised as ritualized suffering by Manoel carrying the rock on his head in Deus eo Diabo na Terra do Sol and then as par for the course for the pilgrims of Central do Brasil. Josué and Dora manage to do it more comfortably than their predecessors but they make the same trek—they’re just always more concerned about paying their way all the time. But most of the time (except for Macunaima) it’s a one way ticket in Cinema Nôvo: __sertão__—the city.

And where the migration to the city carried with it a message of economic betterment and freedom from the oppression of poverty, the characters ride the return ticket in Central do Brasil. In a Cahiers du Cinéma interview Salles states, “the drive of Brazilian cinema during the 80’s was essentially urban and reflected the country’s accelerated and uncritical urbanization. I wanted to return to a simpler, more archaic Brazil. The film changes the gaze and renews its links with a country no one wants to see, far away from the ads and commercials, with core values like solidarity and fraternity, all those themes that are currently out of fashion in a country taken over by an ideology of pragmatism.” [12] With the themes it explores, the imagery it uses, and its allegorical references, at first glance the film appears to place itself deep within the discourse of Cinema Nôvo, but the many references to Brazilian cinema of the 80’s and 90’s seem to use the history of Brazilian cinema during the last forty years—it feels like a “selection reel” of scenes from the best films played backwards. However, a more “political” reading reveals that Central do Brasil is the prototypical example of the films Glauber Rocha’s Aesthetic of Hunger fulminated against.

Central do Brasil is a cinematic time machine which travels backward in time but misses its stop. Instead of stopping at Cinema Nôvo it stops in a world of colonized imagery which posits the discourse back in the 1950’s: we are taken from the present-day predominantly urban reality depicted by a panoply of social problems including infantile homelessness and delinquency, urban violence and crime, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, alcoholism, broken families, etc., to the “sacred” place where the first films of Cinema Nôvo were set—in the sertão. Almost every shot or theme in Central do Brasil has a parallel in Deus eo Diabo na Terra do Sol. And one would think that the mirroring of images and themes would indicate that the concerns raised by both films are similar but where Rocha depicts the sertão as an arid historical tabula rasa where nothing grows, and everything is parched under the hot sun as an allegorical stage for the historical fight between messianic cults, social banditry and oppression, Salles carries us beyond the lefty neo-realist vision of Vidas Secas into a revisionist neo-conservative melodrama full of pathos and optimism with the sertão as the painted backdrop.

Why the sertão? Salles says that “during the location scout, I was surprised by what I found in the North-East and what has disappeared in the cities. In that desolate, far-away place away from civilization, we were ceaselessly invited to sleep over, to share a room, a bed, some food, by people who can barely subsist. I suddenly got the impression that the innocence of Brazil still existed, I believed once again in the possibility of a country where everyone had a chance.” [13] But whose innocence? The current reality of the sertão is different than Salles would like us to accept: 59% of the population is under 24 years old, 67% of the population is illiterate, and the average citizen earns less than US$2,000 per year—the lowest among Brazil’s regions and three times less than in the Southeast. [14] It’s well and good to show all the squatters row-on-row houses as a vision of hope for a new Brazil, but they have an eerie resemblance to the row-on-row construction of the Cidade de Deus of the 60’s. Within the context of the post-dictatorship, national (and personal) insecurity about the future and its longing for the purposefulness, unity, and plenitude of a mythologized national past, Salles provides a cinematic time-space in which contemporaneous cultural anxieties find vernacular expression. [15]

Salles sees the sertão through rose coloured glasses. We are pulled away from any political reading by the melodramatic, wide-screen technicolour elements of the story, and the peripheral real-life reality of the sertanejos does not seem to register beyond the level of background—even the shot from Cesar’s truck of migrating sertanejos is framed within a religious reading by the presence of Christ on the dashboard (and the next time we see the peasants we are already forgetting about them as they quickly recede in the rear view mirror). There’s a bit of the noble savage trope at work here: the metaphor of the sertão as the symbol of a renewed Brazil just does not take. Politically, Salles might want the viewer to buy the all-inclusive package of hope, optimism and the innocence of the sertanejos of his road trip but all we see on his tour bus is a village d’antan recreation of the sertão populated by actors asked to play the role of mixed-blood white-faced happy-go-lucky sambos just dying to share their bag of manioc chips with the tourists.

In the same way that Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes films were anchored in the sertão as spaces emerging from the American Western, Central do Brasil harkens back to Glauber Rocha’s imagery but they also made me think of the films of Wim Wenders for their road movie, buddy movie thang. Wenders’ films are full of representations of vehicles representing “head spaces,” interior/exterior projection spaces and cameras. The windshield as lens and the side windows as film frames work as two-way mirrors or as a camera/projector duality: experiencing life as a film and reality as a projection of the self. [16]

If we look at modes of transportation as a metaphor for Brazilian subjectivity, we can say that the train becomes the dominant mode with the urban landscape its principal reality. Even when the film opens, the trains are exploding with people/stories waiting to extricate/externalize themselves. The references to the taxi point as the selective —i.e. more subjective— landscape that moneyed minorities can afford to change whenever they feel the urge. The bus is between the two: it takes one to lands less traveled, into a more subjective landscape, and in this case is the sertão. Traveling in a bus can also be seen as a metaphor for the communal experience of perceiving a shared reality—and in this case the sharing of the sertão experience on a national scale. And if one really wants to delve deeper into the landscape of the Brazilian experience/mind one can always hitch a ride in an open top truck with a group of religious pilgrims and continue on foot (or on your knees with a huge rock on your head) at the end of the road.

The theme of controlled subjectivity is also carried by visuals of confinement and fencing around the characters. Salles speaks in big picture terms and about the opening up of the visual space (inclusion of sky) as getting away from the oppressiveness of the city. “On the one hand, I wanted to get away from all those images hung all over Brazil, these postcards which exist only at the Brazilian institute of tourism. And on the other, I wanted to get away from a television aesthetic as contrived and artificial as the télénovela soap operas. Thus, when the film starts in Rio de Janeiro, there is no horizon, we never see the beach, we only see the monochrome day of the 400,000 persons which pass through the station daily, as a representation of the real Brazil. Only when the characters begin to take note of their surroundings does the possibility of an alternative vision take place which allows them to see the world though new eyes, colour begins to invade the film: a palette produces itself and depth of field occurs.” [17] Salles continues the thématique of back to the future in the pilgrim’s progress as Rocha does in ??Deus eo Diabo na Terra do Sol??—Rocha’s film literally opens with images of the soil of the sertão and gradually the point of view rises, to the point that we end up on the mountain “above it all” with an earth and sky panorama. Salles opens his film with the yellow and ochre smell of rancid body odour in Rio’s low-cost housing high-rises and takes us on a Sunday drive to the sertão: Salles’ overhead panoramas take us from the congested urban sprawl of Rio, to the fertile-looking, almost empty expanse of the sertão, and finally to the ordered urban development of the squatters’ homes.

The imagery of house as home (of the source) recurs throughout Central do Brasil and is easily incorporated into the imagery of the time machine. The film takes us from the overpopulated slums and housing problems of the favella to the new suburbia of the squatters in the sertão. But parallel to this imagery is the recurring image of the sertanejo’s house. In Deus eo Diabo na Terra do Sol Manoel’s house comes by way of Vidas Secas??—which is slightly more substantial than the houses made by the Canela Indians of Brazil—the typical sharecropper’s house of the sertão. This is transformed into a folkloric image in ??Central do Brasil. It starts out as a painted image in Dora’s apartment, then as wall art in the truck-stop restaurant (in the same way that Greek Montreal restaurateurs decorate the walls of their restaurants with images of the Parthenon) and as we get closer to the Source it becomes more realistic until it becomes reified as Jesse’s house and then as the brother’s.

Salles spends a lot of energy on the folkloric transformation of the house as a symbol standing for the “purity” of life on the sertão, but he gives music the short shrift. His cues are “continental” and not very Brazilian—where’s Michael Nyman when you need him? The musical narrator/cordel troubadour of Deus eo Diabo na Terra do Sol is a lot more engaging than the “modern” music of Central do Brasil and another parallel between the two movies—both have a shot of a solitary guitarist singing in the market place. In Central do Brasil it is the only time that we feel the presence of an indigenous musical culture (apart from religious).

In Deus eo Diabo na Terra do Sol we are presented the visual theme of separation/confinement in the market place where Manoel goes to confront his boss. The horses behind fences force the question which one is freer, the horses on the other side of the fence or the humans on this side of the fence? Or which side is more fenced in? Or if the quality of being fenced in is the same for both animals on both sides of the fence, is there any difference between them? In Central do Brasil the eye is constantly arrested by the presence of bars, steel doors and screens which imply that in Brazil there is always a boundary to one’s subjectivity. We see this in:

A) the repetition of x’s created by the receding perspective:
  • in the great hall of Central Station
  • the railway station landings just before the masses get out of the trains
  • the tracks and the buildings before the kid gets shot
  • the train and the cross-dissolve to the exterior of the apartment building
  • The bridge trusses as the bus leaves Rio at night
B) Metal Bars:
  • on Dora’s apartment windows
  • the different patterns on the windows of Dora’s neighbour’s apartments
  • at the bus station separating the buses from the passengers
  • in front of Dora at various ticket wickets
  • in the windows of the restaurant when Dora and Josué meet César
  • keeping people in at the station—when Josué’s mother leaves the bars behind that’s when she gets killed.
  • Josué on this side of the bars in front of the virgin’s shrine at the station
C) Big doors and locks
  • At the station, the big doors which close at night and open in the morning
  • The many locks at Dora’s apartment
  • The heavy door and locks at the “baby mill”
D) In the sertão
  • The bars get less complicated: in front of the house which once belonged to Josué’s father. The crane up and above the wooden gate and fence is like jumping above it.
  • The walls of the workshop at the brother’s house

And though Rocha sees the fight for Brazilian subjectivity as a struggle between religion (as represented by St. George) and armed struggle (by Corisco—both killed by the “authoritarian” Antonio das Mortes), Salles’ vision picks up the story years later where the fight for Brazilian’s subjectivity has already been won: Josué’s (or Manoel Jr.) mind is already colonized by television and given over to religious feeling. Dora’s first impulse after she “sells” Josué (i.e. mortgages “the future” to the Americans) is to buy a TV set so she can clutter her brain with mindless pap.

For Josué there is no Sao Sebastiao nor a Corisco to focus his centre: he must somehow create one or find one. The metaphor of the toy top shows us how at the beginning of the film when Josué begins to search for the Father and he loses the top, he loses his ‘societal gyroscope’ and he doesn’t recover it until the end of the movie, when he makes his own in his brothers’ workshop in the sertão. This location is yet another instance of parallelism with Deus eo Diabo na Terra do Sol. Manoel’s workshop is also constructed of wooden branches and both possess lathe like machinery. Manoel’s slices manioc root for a subsistence meal whereas the two brothers use it, supposedly for the generation of manufactured wealth i.e. the creation of their “societal gyroscope.” It is by the metaphor of the top that we understand that through work—making tops for everyone or _arbeit macht freiheit_—the entire country will be able to re-experience the freedom Josué knew as a child in Rio and regain its center. It is “satisfying” to see Josué so happy and at ease in the workshop: the creator of the universe spent most of his human life as a craftsman, working with his father in the family business and ultimately taking it over. [18]

The Corisco spirit of rebelliousness is virtually non-existent in Josué: it consists of calling Dora (a variation on Rosa?) a no-good liar and a breaker of promises and the expression of disgust at Dora for not mailing the letters. And though Rocha at least envisages the possibility of armed struggle or “banditry” as an option, Central do Brasil takes religion (Sao Sebastiao) as its point of stability and bearing, replicating the developing country’s conflict between industrialization –Cesar– and commercialism –Signor Béné– and tradition –Dora. [19] Industry and commercialism are false prophets as portrayed by Cesar (a latter-day Corisco riding his white steed festooned with evangelical slogans preaching industry) and Signor Béné as the retailer (preaching the gospel of commercialism). Yet both Josué and Dora shoplift from Béné while Cesar is in on the game—like the scene of pillage and plunder in the house. All of this points at Cesar as a stand-in for Corisco, especially when we see him as a solitary silhouette on the stony surface of the sertão.

In contrast, the Sao Sebastiao drive for spiritual salvation works its power through Dora. To realize her destiny and renegotiate her contract with what Salles sees as the real Brazil, Dora’s self-fulfillment in self-giving happens at the Pentecostal celebration which is associated with the celebration of God’s creation of His people and their religious history. Dora regains her faith in humanity (Brazilian society) through her miraculous transformation in the Casa dos Miracles and the exorcism of her moroseness, indifference and cynicism (a trait left over from Cinema Nôvo). The fact that she burns Josué’s mother’s handkerchief shows that she’s a believer—not necessarily as a Christian but perhaps of a traditional syncretic religion—and thus a person of faith.

The Export of Coconut Milk in Coca-Cola Bottles

In melodrama there is a moral, wish-fulfilling impulse towards the achievement of justice which gives popular culture its strength and appeal as the powerless yet virtuous seek to return to the “innocence” of their origins. [20] As a result, melodrama is structured upon the “dual recognition” of how things are and how they should be. As Linda Williams posits, “Melodrama is the best example of American culture’s (often hypocritical) notion of itself as the locus of innocence and virtue.” [21] And Salles’ take on it is bang on, hypocrisy and all. Where melodrama differs from realism is in its will to force the status quo to yield signs of moral legibility within the limits of the “ideologically permissible.” [22]

From the opening sequence, the film establishes its complicity with the sentimental and compassionate discourse of liberal reformers [23]—this is carried out by the location, the background characters loitering around Dora’s stall, and the illiterate “masses” seeking her services. Establishing the necessity of helplessness in the characters for the melodrama to work feeds the psychological helplessness of the viewer. One expects that Dora is on the verge of a political awakening after Josué’s mother is killed, when the ever vigilant Pedrao approaches Josué to take care of business, and Dora intercedes on Josué’s behalf, but this is just the set-up for her big sell-out. The melodrama is so “in your face” that the viewer is blinded to the social thematics.” [24]

Nostalgia for a lost innocence associated with the maternal suffuses this film. Pathos arises, most fundamentally, from the audience’s awareness of this loss [25] but the cinematic representation of a socially disenfranchised child picked up by Dora functions as a kind of ideological cover-up for the failure of Brazil’s government to provide relief for the needy. [26] And in the same way that the on-lookers at the site of the shooting fail to react to the killing—witnessing and failing to act—Salles becomes part of the problem of the erosion of social responsibility. Melodrama camouflages alienation with expressivity and thereby masks or displaces the real conditions of existence. [27]

“In Sao Sebastiao and his followers, hunger, ignorance and misery fire up a madness which impels them to human sacrifice; the cangaceiro Corisco, to whose band Manuel joins after Sao Sebastiao and his group are destroyed, hunger, ignorance and misery foment an insatiable, systematically demoniacal ferocity. Thus Sao Sebastiao and Corisco represent God and the Devil both deformed and disturbed by the desolateness of the sertão. As usual, the solution to the social problems represented by Sao Sebastiao and Corisco is entrusted to the infallible gun sights of Antonio das Mortes, professional killer, sinister figure, a melancholy and visionary killer, that imagines that once God (Sao Sebastiao) and the Devil (Corisco) are eliminated, there will be a liberation war which will redeem the sertão. So Antonio das Mortes shoots the prophet and the bandit. Manuel, as a symbol of the Brazilian people, escapes as living testimony to the truth of the film’s thesis.” [28]

In Central do Brasil there is none of this. There is no hunger—at every turn of the road there is someone stuffing their face (literally); spiritually, everyone’s sated by religion; there is no misery except for the suffering brought on by pining for the absent father; poverty is taken for granted and deemed natural—they are disenfranchised and poor because they are; hence, there is no need for class struggle. Apparently, there are no social problems in Brazil unless you go out of your way to find them, and Salles’ vesting the drama with emotions does a great job of white-washing the social reality, that’s why Dora and Josué have to rely on luck and the kindness of strangers for food and to get them to where they want to go. Viewers are asked to leave their brains at the coat check and to open themselves to the total experience of bourgeois cinema: i.e. the over-emphasizing and playing on the deep-seated emotional fears and desires of the audience at the expense of their critical intelligence. [29]

Instead of producing a film depicting the Brazilian condition (uniquely for internal consumption) as advocated by the original proponents of Cinema Nôvo, Salles has produced a film which from a bourgeois standpoint works as a complete and satisfying experience and marketable worldwide, but where the secondary meanings are lost to mass markets. (This is why most foreign critics who see through the primary level melodrama find the film such an unsatisfying experience—they can’t decipher the underlying Brazilian references.) Cinema Nôvo filmmakers would create fubu films which they would not allow to be compromised in any way by foreign interests to the point that when Rocha got a production contract with Universal Studios, Andrade accused him of selling out and wanted to shoot him with a gun. As Rocha predicted, “our possible liberation will probably come in the form of a new dependency.” [30]

Salles works hand in hand with foreign financing and formats his stories to make his films as attractive as possible to first world distributors and audiences. Though his films are small-time, almost marginal films, in the eyes of Hollywood, Salles hedges his bets by doing the Sundance Institute script workshop, “which educates filmmakers in the market realities of a high-concept plot and happy ending” [31] to make his product as attractive as possible to a first-world mass market. But be careful what you ask for! “By letting himself be emotionally moved by the cinema—and even demanding that cinema should be emotionally moving—the filmgoer puts himself at the mercy of anyone who comes along with a lot of money to invest, in seeing to it that filmgoers are moved. And the people who have that kind of money also have a vested interest in making sure that the audiences are moved in the right direction—that is, in the direction of perpetuating the investors advantageous position in an economic system which permits gross inequities in the distribution of wealth.” [32] A film like Central do Brasil will be marketed as an indie production with exotic cachet in the art-house market or in a limited wide release but it will then have to vie for viewers next to block-buster productions. “When Central do Brasil came out, 550 screens out of 700 were taken up by Titanic and then by The Man in the Iron Mask.” [33]

Salles succeeds in bottling coconut milk in coca-cola bottles: a well produced, well shot, Third-world story with high-production values, with situations that would assuage the guilty consciences of the First World and flatter their open-mindedness, while soft-peddling liberalism couched as lefty politics with turbo-charged melodrama to sugarcoat the pill. But in sugar-coating the pill “the Latin American neither communicates his real misery to the ‘civilized’ European, nor does the European truly comprehend the misery of the Latin American.” [34] And like Godard reproaches Rocha for having a ‘producer’s mentality’ for thinking too much in so-called ‘practical’ terms of distribution, markets, etc. in Salles’ case the wolf is dressed in sheep’s clothing—he willingly embraces and perpetuates the capitalist structures of cinema and deepens their hold on the Third World and in the process, neglects urgent theoretical questions that must be asked if Third World cinema is to avoid merely repeating the ideological errors of Western Cinema. [35] But how can one criticize the humanist message and its collection of international prizes?

Salles feeds the hunger of the First World by producing a film that instead of raising the political awareness of the general misery, “the foreign onlooker cultivates the taste of that misery, not as a tragic symptom, but merely as an aesthetic object within his field of interest.” [36] Under the guises of colonialising the foreign market, Salles is canibalising his own people and their condition. Salles satisfies that hunger for all that is exotic and picturesque in underdeveloped countries—and exports the image the First World has created of the Third World. [37] You want Carmen Miranda? How many would you like? Here’s the bill, thank you very much. “For the European observer the process of artistic creation in the underdeveloped world is of interest only insofar as it satisfies a nostalgia for primitivism,” [38] and Salles provides the goods: he’s aiding and abetting Colonialismo Nôvo.

Catering to the foreign market would also require the use of more advanced projection technology for theatrical release and this would work against small-time independent domestic theatrical exhibitors while strengthening the major chains. [39] The use of cinema-scope/wide-screen film “aided in the retention of the oligopoly. More specifically, ‘Scope helped reshape film for the diminished market through a strong differentiation from both television and the conventional Academy format film” [40] so that only the big chains would make money during the lucrative first run. Using the wide-screen format also has ideological implications. To some, a wide-screen film implies the increased realism of the image, the feeling of engulfment that makes the viewer lose awareness of the frame and the fact that the world presented is an illusion. It lends reality, realism, to what is presented on screen.” [41] But while proclaiming to be a more real experience, CinemaScope plays the artifice better. And for the Cinema Nôvo aesthetic which habitually used distanciation effects to make the viewer more aware of the inherent manipulation of images, the lessened aesthetic distance produced by CinemaScope was a bad thing in that it would draw the viewer into the spectacle rather than the didactic aspects; and also limit film access to the people that need to see it most. However, the subsequent release on VHS or DVD would have the desired positive effect of loosening the grip of the major TV broadcasters on the minds of its viewers.

Religious Allegory

Although Central do Brasil appears to function perfectly well for most viewers as a story for its own sake, the film also functions well as a Christian allegory. This other level of meaning documents a movement from skepticism (a natural response to the absurd, transitory situation of human existence) to faith (brought forth not by a compelling and self-validating religious experience, but by the very absence of the savior who is sought). [42] And even though it “was not widely viewed as religious, Central do Brasil invites a theological reading as the story of human beings struggling to maintain a relationship to an absent God.” [43]

It’s clear that in the context of the plot, Dora is the Virgin—she has no father, no husband, no children—and Josué is the child—and from the constant repetition of the Virgin and Child images. But if Deus é Brasileiro (God is Brazilian, Carlos Diegues, 2003) where is he? From the start, the boy is looking to complete the picture with a father—his mother goes to Dora for the boy’s sake. And after his mother is killed, he wants to write a letter to his father but is frustrated by Dora because she feels that given the social climate of Brazil, finding the father will be impossible. By looking for a “real” father —that is for a father in the shared working-class environment of the bus— they are looking in the wrong place for the source. Pedrao (representing evil against the divine) is the first suitor to possibly fit the bill, but he is obviously not the right candidate. For both characters, the truck driver César (representing the world in contrast to the divine) seems a hopeful candidate for that missing role. But César leaves while Dora is putting on lipstick in the bathroom, while a distant voice sings “How Great Thou Art.” [44] Then they literally try to complete the picture with the father when Josué and Dora have their picture taken with the “Saint” in Bom Jesus da Norte. It’s not only a record of the happiness of that moment but serves to underline the concept of father as a myth created for the purpose of keeping everything together. Only at the end of the film do we get to understand that the fount of hope is Josué—the son of God—and Josué is the future of Brazil.

But they have not yet found the father and must continue on their quest. Even the Estrela do Norte bus line name serves as a pointer in the direction of the birth of Christ. The man inhabiting the first house they visit in the town is named Jesse (a reference to King David’s father and Jesus’ ancestor); he points the way to Jesus—God the Father. When they finally reach Jesus’ house, there is a painting on the wall of father, mother and child – the first time Josué has seen a trinity rather than the Virgin-Child duality. [45] Moisés and Isaías, the sons of Jesus in the film, have the names of Hebrew prophets who, in the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament, foretold and prefigured the coming of Jesus. Here they, too, are characterized as Jesus’ sons; they work in their father’s carpentry shop turning out furniture, though they do not consider themselves the equal of Jesus who built their house. [46] Yet the father does not show up or can’t be found or will be coming back at some future date. Given his absence, the other characters in the film are free to decide for themselves how they will view him. Josué clings to his heroic conception of his father as the leader of a family; Dora embellishes Ana’s brief description with details about Jesus’ drinking and physical abuse; Moisés has become so comfortable with his hatred of his absent father that he does not want his image shattered by Jesus’ words in the letter; and Isaias is full of hope the father will return. So Jesus’ absence forces all the characters to determine the relationship with God the Father for themselves. [47]

Dora’s final response of faith—an adult appropriation of Josué’s continual childlike faith—is only meaningful in light of this absence. Even the letter from Jesus is not enough hard evidence to compel belief. Dora’s life has provided her with a mass of hard, incontrovertible evidence that points toward withholding faith and trust as the only sane way of living. Yet as she and Josué follow the void that Jesus (God the Father) has left, she is convinced by the absence as she could not have been by the presence. [48]

Dora as Josué’s (The Lord) Handmaid

Dora’s character complements the religious allegorical interpretation of Central do Brasil. Within the film, Salles underlines that Dora is a woman and that there is no denying the differences between her and the male aspects of the narrative. From the get go, she understands and challenges the use of the word “pussy” and the sexuality of her illiterate patrons in a different way than any man or boy would. Her feelings are “awakened” by Josué’s precariousness after his mother’s death—she’s too well aware of what happens to abandoned children. She reacts as a mother when she hears that Josué is at the “baby-mill” ready for the chop-shop or when she feeds him and takes him home with her. Motherhood modeled after the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, [49] signals the co-operation in the birth of the divine Logos in the human heart where he can grow and be nurtured in the concrete circumstances of family life. [50]

But her female nature is also evident in how Salles is so eager to separate/demarcate the two sexes—when Josué and Dora emerge from the washrooms at the first bus stop/gas station, when she puts the move on Cesar or when she goes to bed with Josué in the Pagador de Promesas Hotel in Bom Jesus da Norte, Salles wants to keep the two of them apart so that there is no confusion of characters between the Virgin Mary and Baby Josué, that they are both interpreted as separate elements. Josué is her crutch and at the same time her force motrice.

We are invited to establish parallels of identity between Dora and the Virgin Mary. In virtue of her special bond with Mary, woman has often in the course of history represented God’s closeness to the expectations of goodness and tenderness of a humanity wounded by hatred and sin, by sowing in the world seeds of a civilization that can respond to violence with love. [51] Her “yes” to accepting the stewardship of Josué’s destiny becomes “the Good News for the whole of humanity” or at least for Brazil’s future. [52] Mary’s self-determination is realized in dependence/inter-dependence of a creature to her creator. Through the progressive emptying—assimilation of her mission— she reaches her ultimate vocation. [53]


Central do Brasil is so intent on making the viewer feel compassion for its characters and share their pathos that in its rush to get to the sertão, it leaves its Cinema Nôvo and neo-realist baggage behind.

Looking at the film from a bourgeois perspective, the film “satisfies” as a melodrama, but if you scratch the surface the left-wing, neo-realist bent does not take and neither does the Cinema Nôvo imagery. The references to Cinema Nôvo and specifically to Rocha’s Deus eo Diabo na Tera do Sol attempt to undermine the original precepts and concerns of the original films, but analysis reveals their shortcomings. Salles’ nostalgic self-reflection is “onanistic, solipsistic, or cannibalistic.” [54]

Central do Brasil makes itself want to be seen as a ‘political film’ and when one does look at it as such, one can only come to the conclusion that whether you’re coming or going, it will always be found on the right side of the tracks. Italian Neo-realist melodrama and its over-the-top emotionalism were anchored in the mechanics of the economic plight of the characters, whereas in Central do Brasil the characters are simply dressed poor to render them more pathetic. Dora’s and Josue’s struggle to find the father does not reveal any heightening of class consciousness. “The representation of victimized classes in isolation is not enough to constitute a class system, let alone to precipitate the beginning of a consciousness of class in its viewing public. Nor are the repeated references to the absent bank management sufficient to transform the situation into a genuine class relationship, since this term does not find concrete representation—or figuration within the filmic narrative itself.” [55] The ending, where we see Dora’s and Josue’s smiles through their tears, is the very embodiment of internally conflicted and complex emotions which are not totally worked out—like the politics of the film. In wanting the viewer to identify with the plight of the characters Salles keys up the viewer’s emotional involvement in the melodrama and engagingly beautifies the image. “If beauty is one of the arms the ruling class uses to pacify us and ‘keep us in our place,’ then one of our tasks is to turn that weapon around and make it work against the enemy.” [56]

In Central do Brasil there are no enemies so there is no reason to turn the weapon around. Salles would have us believe that everyone is friends with everyone else and we should let bygones be bygones and join him at the big love-in in the sertão. And if life were like that you wouldn’t need a Visa card.

Brazil/France/Spain/Japan 1998
Director: Walter Salles
Screenplay: Marcos Bernstein and João Emanuel Carneiro based on a story by Walter Salles


1 Johnson, Randal and Stam, Robert. Brazilian Cinema. Farleigh Dickinson University Press. Rutherford, Madison and Teaneck, USA. 1982, p. 68.

2 Rocha, Glauber. An Aesthetic of Hunger (1965). Translated by Burnes Saint Patrick Hollyman in Glauber Rocha and the Cinema Nôvo: A Study of his Critical Writings and Films. Garland Publishing, Inc. New York & London. 1983,

3 Johnson, Randal and Stam, Robert. Opus Cit. p. 19

4 Didaco, Jorge. “Turbulence—the Rise of the Mandacaru: Brazilian Cinema Renewed,” in Senses of Cinema, an online journal devoted to the serious and eclectic discussion of cinema:

5 Didaco, Jorge. Opus Cit.

6 Xavier, Ismail. “Black God, White Devil: The representation of History,” in Johnson, Randal and Stam, Robert. Brazilian Cinema. Farleigh Dickinson University Press. Rutherford, Madison and Teaneck, USA. 1982, p. 134.

7 Bowman, Donna. “Faith and the Absent Saviour,” in Central do Brasil.

8 Xavier, Ismail. Opus Cit. p. 134.

9 Sontag, Susan. On Photography.

10 Interview with Walter Salles in Cineaste Magazine

11 Schiff, Frederick. “Brazilian Film and Military Censorship: Cinema Nôvo, 1964-1974,” in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 13, No. 4, 1993, p. 480.

12 Desbois, Laurent. “Une affaire de pionniers, Entretien avec Walter Salles,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 526, p. 55

13 Desbois, Laurent. Opus Cit. p. 56

14 http://www.peopleteams.org/_sertanejos_

15 Sobchack, Vivian. “Lounge Time. Postwar Crises and the Chronotope of Film Noir,” in Refiguring American Film Genres History and Theory ed. Nick Browne. University of California Press, Berkley 1998, p. 133

16 Kuzniar, Alice. “Wender’s Windshields,” in Roger F. Cook and Gerd Gemünden eds. The Cinema of Wim Wenders. Image, Narrative and the Postmodern Condition. Wayne State University Press. Detroit, Michigan. 1997, p. 151.

17 Desbois, Laurent. Opus Cit. p. 56

18 D’Ambrosio, Marcellino. Holy Family, December 15,2004 in:

19 Caplan, Nina. “Central do Brasil??/??Central do Brasil Review,” in Sight and Sound, March 1999.

20 Williams, Linda. “Melodrama Revised,” in Refiguring American Film Genres History and Theory ed. Nick Browne, University of California Press, Berkley 1998, p. 48

21 Williams, Linda. Opus Cit. p. 50

22 Gledhill, Christine. “The Melodramatic Field: An Investigation,” in Home is where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film, ed. Christine Gledhill (London: BFI, 1987) quoted in Williams, Linda “Melodrama Revised,” in Refiguring American Film Genres History and Theory ed. Nick Browne. University of California Press, Berkley 1998, p. 53

23 King, Bob. “The Kid,” from “The Kid: Jackie Coogan and the Consolidation of Child Consumerism,” in the Velvet Light Trap, Number 48, Fall 2001. University of Texas Press, Austin. 2001, p. 7

24 King, Bob. Opus Cit. p. 8

25 Williams, Linda. Opus Cit. p. 65

26 King, Bob. Opus Cit. p. 17

27 Nichols, Bill. Introductory essay to Frederic Jameson’s essay “Class and Allegory in Contemporary Mass Culture: Dog Day Afternoon as a Political Film,” in Nichols, Bill ed. Movies and Methods Volume II. An Anthology. University of California Press, Berkley. 1976, p. 96.

28 Moravia, Alberto. “Que conta Deus e o Diabo na Tera do Sol, (What does Deus e o Diabo na Tera do Sol Tell Us)” from L’Espresso, 16.08.64 Rome, Italy. Translated from the Portuguese by the author.

29 Macbean, James Roy. “Vent d’Est or Godard and Rocha at the Crossroads,” in Nichols, Bill ed. Movies and Methods An Anthology. University of California Press, Berkley. 1976, p. 96

30 Rocha, Glauber. Opus Cit. p. 69

31 Aufderheide, Pat. “Central Station,” in Film Comment, vol. 34 No. 6, Nov.-Dec. 1998, p. 76

32 Macbean, James Roy. Opus Cit. p. 96.

33 Desbois, Laurent. Opus Cit. p. 56

34 Rocha, Glauber. Opus Cit. p. 69

35 Macbean, James Roy. Opus Cit. p. 94.

36 Rocha, Glauber. Opus Cit. p. 69

37 Farias, Roberto. “Toward a Common Market of Portuguese and Spanish-speaking Countries,” in Johnson, Randal and Stam, Robert. Brazilian Cinema. Farleigh Dickinson University Press. Rutherford, Madison and Teaneck, USA.1982, p. 95

38 Rocha, Glauber. Opus Cit. p. 69

39 Spellerberg, James. “Cinemascope and Ideology,” in The Velvet Light Trap. No. 21 Summer 1985. Special
Issue on American Widescreen. Madison, Wisconsin. 1985, p.29

40 Spellerberg, James. Opus Cit. p.29

41 Spellerberg, James. Opus Cit. p.30

42 Bowman, Donna. “Faith and the Absent Saviour in Central do Brasil.”

43 Bowman, Donna. Opus Cit.

44 Bowman, Donna. Opus Cit.

45 Bowman, Donna. Opus Cit.

46 Bowman, Donna. Opus Cit.

47 Bowman, Donna. Opus Cit.

48 Bowman, Donna. Opus Cit.

49 Skruzny, Eric. “Mary, Model of Women and Mothers from The Blessed Virgin Mary and Women,” by Sr. M. Danielle Peters in Catholic Faith Magazine accessed on-line Oct. 27, 2004

50 Moss, Rodney. “Mary and the Evangelization of the Family,” quoted in “The Blessed Virgin Mary and Women,” by Sr. M. Danielle Peters in Catholic Faith Magazine accessed on-line Oct. 27, 2004

51 John Paul II. “Mary sheds light on the role of women.” General Audience of 6 December 1995, in “The Blessed Virgin Mary and Women,” by Sr. M. Danielle Peters,” in Catholic Faith Magazine on-line Oct. 27, 2004

52 Peters, Sr. M. Danielle. “The Blessed Virgin Mary and Women,” in Catholic Faith Magazine accessed on-line Oct. 27, 2004

53 Roten, Johann. “S.M. Mary in Theological Anthropology,” IMRI course, class notes in “The Blessed Virgin Mary and Women” by Sr. M. Danielle Peters in Catholic Faith Magazine accessed on-line Oct. 27, 2004

54 Alter, Nora M. “Documentary as Simulacrum: Tokyo-Ga,” in Roger F. Cook and Gerd Gemünden eds. The Cinema of Wim Wenders. Image, Narrative and the Postmodern Condition. Wayne State University Press. Detroit, Michigan. 1997, p.151.

55 Jameson, Frederic. “Class and Allegory in Contemporary Mass Culture: Dog Day Afternoon as a Political Film,” in Nichols, Bill ed. Movies and Methods Volume II. An Anthology. University of California Press, Berkley. 1976, p. 727.

56 Macbean, James Roy. Opus Cit. p. 98.

Felix is a partner at Hot Spots Productions in Montreal, Canada. As a TV commercial Producer/Director he’s worked on over 300 retail commercial advertising campaigns and on-air promotions. Production credits include CTV, King World Entertainment, Wow Wee Toys, Hasbro, Fisher-Price, IBM, and RJR-Nabisco. As a field-producer, he has worked with E!, Entertainment Tonight, Fox L.A. Sports, WTN, ZDF, ARD, RAI, RTVE, CANAL “+” (Spain & France) in North America, South America, and Europe. He edited the NBC documentary The Earth is the Lord’s (Silver Medallist, New York Festivals, 1991). He loves the work but would rather be sailing his Seafarer 31 “A Su Aire” or racing Etchells, really.

Volume 9, Issue 6 / June 2005 Essays   brazilian cinema   central station   reviews_specific_film   third world cinema   walter salles