Dora (Fernanda Montenegro) is a former school teacher who makes a living by writing letters for illiterate people passing through Rio de Janeiro’s main train station, Central do Brasil. Commuting to the city from impoverished suburbs, workers flock to her, hoping to contact lost family members, send love letters, or simply relate the details of their lives. Dora charges the equivalent of a dollar per letter she writes and a dollar more if she is asked to mail it. Among her clients are Ana (Sôia Lira) and her nine-year-old son Josué (Vinicius de Oliveira), who has a fierce desire to meet his father, whom he has never seen.
Dora has become stoically indifferent to the weight of her charge, choosing arbitrarily to send some letters and discard others. Every night, she takes the subway home to her apartment in the suburbs. There, Dora and her neighbor Irene (Marilia Pêra), also single and living alone, read aloud the letters she has written during the day. Those that are considered important – a few – are mailed, and the rest are tossed in the garbage. If the two women disagree, the letter goes into a drawer, to await later judgment. One of these letters in the drawer is Ana and Josué’s.
But Dora’s life is about to change dramatically. The next day, soon after Ana returns to Central do Brasil with Josué and dictates a second letter to the boy’s father, she is hit by a bus after leaving the station and dies. Left alone with no relatives in Rio, Josué wanders aimlessly around the station.
Swayed by a curiously maternal compassion, Dora resists her initial impulse to make a quick profit off the child and commits to returning Josué to his father in Brazil’s remote Northeast. As buses and trucks carry the motley pair through the increasingly unfamiliar terrain, they defy their initial aversion to each other, journeying closer together and deeper inside themselves. The journey becomes a quest for their own identities: one boy’s search for his father; one woman’s search for her heart; a nation’s yearning for its roots.
Few countries have suffered as many traumatic changes in the last thirty years as Brazil. A late industrialization created a huge wave of internal migration that, in turn, brought chaos to the cities, unprepared to accommodate so many new arrivals. The absence of land reform and successive droughts in the northern states led to a continuous exodus to the south of the country.
In the 1970’s, millions of migrants from the northeast abandoned their homes, families and cultural traditions, attracted by the illusion of an economic miracle announced by the military government. But promises were unfulfilled, unemployment rates soared, and so did violence in the overpopulated Brazilian cities of the south.
In the beginning of the 90’s, the country plunged even further into a state of chaos. After recently-elected president Collor announced an outrageous new plan to restructure the economy, more than 800,000 young Brazilians opted for exile, in search of the opportunity denied them in their homeland. For the first time since its discovery 500 years ago, Brazil became a country of emigration. This was the underlying theme of my previous film, "Foreign Land", about a generation in crisis, lost in a country which was, itself, unsure of its identity.
A few years have passed. We are now on the verge of a new century, and somehow, the country has matured. We know that the economic miracle that would immediately solve all our structural problems was a fallacy. We also know that mass exile is not a possible solution. We are finally confronted with ourselves, with what we really are, so distant from the image created by official statistics and by national television, entities that have both been so efficient in controlling and defining Brazil’s recent past.
Today, an important quest is surfacing : the desire to find another country, one that may be simpler and less glorious than previously announced, but aims to be more compassionate and human. A country where the possibility of a certain innocence still remains.
This latent desire to rediscover a country, to redefine ourselves, coincides with the rebirth of Brazilian cinema, with the necessity to continue a cinematic tradition that was brutally interrupted for political and economic reasons - perhaps because it depicted faithfully what took place in Brazil, in contrast to what was shown on television.
"Central do Brasil" aims to talk about this country searching for its own roots. This is a film about a boy wanting to find his own identity (Josué), but is also about people striving to maintain a contact with their past (the illiterate migrants who dictate letters to Dora).
Like many people who had to endure the harsh times of the last decades, Dora is a survivor. She has lost sight of most ethical and moral principles and makes ends meet with the help of unorthodox methods.
Josué has also been hardened by his own, although short, history. He represents the second generation of migrants that in the official promises of a future in the south. He desires now to find the home and family he has never seen, inverting the exodus’ axis and, thus, redefining his own story. Most of all, he desires to meet his father for the first time. And, in Portuguese, father – "pai"- and country – "país" are almost the same word.