Film: The boy from Brazil

Shot on a shoestring and starring a former shoeshine boy, director Walter Salles' Central Station is set to scoop an Oscar and prove that size doesn't always matter.
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The Independent Culture
The film Central Station (Central do Brasil) tells of a journey into the hinterland of the South American country. Dora, a retired Rio schoolteacher (Fernanda Montenegro), accompanies Josue, a nine-year-old street kid (Vinicius de Oliveira) in search of his father. It has already won a Golden Globe award and is widely expected to win an Oscar next month (it's nominated for Best Foreign Language Film; Montenegro is up for Best Actress).

The boy's quest is not an excuse for sub-Disney whimsy. Rather, it stands for a national quest for self-identity. "All countries that have been colonised and then abandoned have this sense of the loss of the father figure," says the film's writer-director, Walter Salles.

His own father - a banker - may be one of the richest men in Brazil, but everything about Salles suggests austerity. He is an earnest 43-year- old who sometimes seems more like a priest than a film-maker as he unravels the secret meanings of his deceptively simple parable.

"Obviously, I come from a very privileged background but since I was 13 or 14 I have realised how removed I was from social reality. That's why I yearned to become a documentarist - to plunge into that social reality."

Central Station had an unusual gestation. In 1996, Salles sent his screenplay to Robert Redford's Sundance Institute. He had written it in Portuguese when it should have been in English and it arrived late, but Salles won a cash prize that enabled him to develop the project.

"Somebody managed to read it... what I think interested the Sundance Institute was the multi-layered quality of the plot."

Salles explains that Dora, who makes a living writing letters for illiterates, which she often cruelly fails to send, stands for "a certain culture of indifference and cynicism which characterised our country in the Seventies and Seventies".

Josue, the boy, represents the opposite. "He stands for the possibility of change. Through his fierce desire to meet his unknown father, he grants himself a new future. The character of the boy has to do with the desire of the country to shape itself into something new."

By travelling away from the city - which is characterised by its violence and squalor - the unlikely, hardened travelling companions are able to "resensitise" themselves.

The story of how the director found his leading man could inspire a film in its own right. He was looking for a boy who "knew what fighting for survival on the streets of Rio meant, but on the other hand, had not lost his innocence". Enter Vinicius de Oliveira.

"One day I went to the airport at 7am. It was pouring with rain. I was drinking coffee, trying to wake up," Salles remembers. "I felt somebody pulling my sleeve. I looked down and it was this nine-year-old kid trying to attract my attention. He said he was the shoeshine boy."

The kid couldn't drum up any business because of the rain. He knew that he couldn't shine Salles' shoes - Salles was wearing sneakers. Even so, he asked for a small loan. "He said he was an honest guy and that when I was back from my journey, he'd pay me back."

Salles was fascinated. When he asked the boy to do a film test, Vinicius said that he had never seen a film. Salles auditioned him anyway. "And I had found the boy for the film. Or to be fair, he had found me."

Vinicius, Salles points out, wasn't really a street kid. "He was a little warrior fighting for survival, working - not stealing. He came from a very solid family." Since completing the movie, Vinicius, now 12, has returned to school. (The producers are paying his fees through college.)

The boy also introduces a daily TV programme for children who couldn't make it to school. "He talks about geography, history, grammar... the programme is a great success and his life has been transformed. He lives in a good apartment. He's making a substantial amount of money. But he has kept the integrity he had when I met him. He realises his own social responsibility in regard to other kids who didn't have the chance he had."

If you ask Salles to pinpoint the appeal of Central Station, he suggests that it lies in the film's open-hearted quality. Its technique harks back to the Italian Neo-Realist agenda and to Brazil's own Cinema Novo rather than to "the neon realist agenda of Hollywood cinema".

Salles follows the advice that film-makers should find their stories out on the streets, from real people. It's no coincidence that Central Station was produced by the veteran Arthur Cohn, who has also worked with the Neo-Realist Vittorio de Sica.

For all his modesty, the writer-director can't resist a little crowing about the film's reception in Brazil. "It has the best screen average of the year. Titanic is second and Godzilla is third. So you see, size doesn't matter after all."

`Central Station' is out on 12 March