It may lack Jackie Brown's dark humour, but Central Do Brasil has authentic shock value, writes Geoffrey Macnab
Back in 1992, on something close to a whim, President Fernando Collor de Mello contrived to destroy the Brazilian film industry. For no reason that anybody has been able to work out, he closed the State Film Board, Embrafilme, the body that had financed local production for close to 50 years. Overnight, money dried up. At their nadir, home-grown movies accounted for only 0.1 per cent of the films shown in the Brazilian market. Last Sunday's announcement that Walter Salles' Central Do Brasil had won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival thus seems doubly sweet. The award not only confirms Salles' reputation as one of the best young film-makers currently working in Latin-America, but, taken in tandem with the Oscar nomination for Bruno Barretto's Four Days in September, heralds a Brazilian renaissance. Word of Salles' triumph in faraway Europe even made it into the front pages of the Rio newspapers - no mean feat during carnival week.

Why is Central Do Brasil special? Compared to some of the other films in competition in Berlin, Salles' parable about a little boy's search for his father is modest and unprepossessing. There is none of the wisecracking slang that runs through Tarantino's Jackie Brown. The special effects certainly don't compare with the hurricane scenes in Robert Altman's John Grisham adaptation, The Gingerbread Man. Nor does Salles attack the emotions as shamelessly and manipulatively as Gus Van Sant in Good Will Hunting. Even if it isn't a perfect film, it's a completely honest one, as Fernanda Montenegra, one of the stars of Central Do Brasil, observed during the film's Berlin press conference. That seems about right. The story line about a little boy in search of his father could easily have been milked for pathos, but Salles approaches his material in understated and unsentimental fashion.

He discovered his lead actor on a wet day in Rio Airport, after 13 months and well over 1,500 auditions. Vincius De Oliveira, a 10-year-old shoeshine boy, approached him to ask for the price of a hamburger.

"We screen-tested him, and he was easily the best we'd seen," says Salles. "We wanted him to be innocent but tough. He was really a wonderful find."

Salles' big break in financing Central Do Brasil (his second feature) came two years ago, when he submitted the original screenplay to Robert Redford's Sundance Institute. Although the screenplay was in Portuguese when it should have been in English, and although it arrived late, he won a cash prize which enabled him to develop the project. He also hooked up with the legendary American producer Arthur Cohn (who won a Golden Bear in Berlin way back in 1971, with Vittorio De Sica's The Garden of the Finzi Continis.) The style of Central Do Brasil is reminiscent of Italian neo-realism. It is as if Salles has followed Cesare Zavattini's famous injunction that film-makers should find their stories out on the streets, from real people. Fernanda Montenegra plays Dora, a retired schoolteacher who ekes out a living by writing letters for for the illiterate passers- by swarming around Central Do Brasil, Rio's biggest railway station.

"It's a really awful place," she recalls. "We turned up dressed as the characters we were playing and set up the table where I wrote the letters, and gradually people arrived. Many of them had no idea that I was an actress."

However, it is hard to credit Montenegra's story that she was not recognised. She is easily the most famous actress in Brazil, equally at home on stage and in soap operas. Imagine Pat Phoenix crossed with Dame Judi Dench, and you'll get a rough idea of the affection in which she is held by the Brazilian public. She won the Best Actress award in Berlin last week, quite a family coup when you remember that her daughter, Fernanda Torres, did likewise in Cannes back in 1986. Her character is not especially sympathetic. Dora is cynical and self-interested, more concerned with buying a new television set than with looking after the welfare of the little boy whose mother has been killed. Only gradually, as she and the boy embark on an epic journey across Brazil, does she learn compassion. For Western audiences, Central Do Brasil may seem to be a simple little fable about a boy's quest for his father. For Brazilians, Salles argues, it has an altogether greater resonance. In symbolic terms, the search for the father is about the search for national identity. The enforced migration, the violence and the hardship that Dora and the child endure is part of what he describes as an all-too-familiar South American tragedy.

Winning a major prize at an international festival doesn't guarantee a film's fortunes. (Last year's Cannes victors, The Eel and The Taste of the Cherry, still haven't surfaced in the UK.) Nevertheless, Central Do Brasil is as affecting and as enjoyable a film as you are likely to see in a long time. It is also a welcome antidote to the flab of Hollywood. Let's hope that one or other of our benighted British distributors has the courage to pick it up.