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We moderns like our heroes cut down to size. Especially we demand that Christian faith, which is nothing if not the heroic writ large, must be portrayed warts and all. Robert Duvall did just that in The Apostle. The extremely favorable reception of Duvall's extraordinary film tells me that something is afoot in our culture. Christian themes can actually be portrayed in a way that is neither saccharine nor demeaning—and audiences will applaud. In case you've been asleep during the twentieth century, this is big news.
All of which brings us to Central Station, a striking film by Brazilian director Walter Salles that took top honors at the Berlin Film Festival and won Sundance's Cinema 100 award for its screenplay. The story focuses on two people: Josue, an orphan of nine, and Dora, a nastily cynical and bitter woman of 67—going on 167. (When in one scene on a bus her shrewish squawking prompts a wakened passenger to denounce her as a hag, I thought, "Ah, yes, that's the word I was looking for.")
The movie's quirkily filmed opening is a happy presentiment of things to come. We see closeups of various people "talking" to the camera—to us—pouring out their hearts, as to a mirror, or to God. Because of the heartbreaking earnestness of their words, even the least attractive of them has a radiant inner beauty. We soon realize these people are dictating letters as they speak—to Dora, who works in the main room of Rio de Janeiro's eponymous Central Station as a surrogate "letter writer."
One of the people who visits Dora is Josue's mother, whose letter is addressed to her runaway husband. She implores him to return so he can see his son. Josue squirms nervously by her side, correctly sizing up the old woman as untrustworthy. But when they finish and leave to go home, tragedy strikes: a speeding bus hits and kills Josue's mother. The authorities spirit her away in an ambulance, and Josue is somehow left behind. The brave boy wanders the station for several ...