A former schoolteacher works in the Central Station in Rio, writing and mailing letters from illiterate customers. While she despises her customers, she is moved to take care of one, a young boy whose mother is killed in an accident. Together, they set off to find his long-lost father.
This poignant road movie from documentary filmmaker Salles was nominated for two Oscars, having already won Berlin's Golden Bear (best film) and Silver Bear (best actress) gongs. Featuring the unlikely pairing of an old bat of a retired teacher and a newly orphaned nine-year-old boy, the film keeps the audience engrossed in their yo-yoing relationship as it offers insights into the underbelly of Brazilian life.
The odd couple meet at Rio's main railway station where Dora (Montenegro) makes a meagre living writing letters for illiterate travellers; one of these is Josue's mother (De Oliveira), who is trying to contact the boy's father. Although Dora has become hard and cynical about life, when the boy's mother is run over, she takes him home - seeing in him a reflection of her own sad childhood. While it never overshadows the central characters' story, the reality of Brazilian poverty is brought into sharp relief when Dora sells Josue to a so-called adoption agency, only to kidnap him back when she learns that it's only his internal organs that will be adopted. Forced to flee the city, the two take off by bus to find Josue's absentee father.
The barbed humour is a delight, with the duo bickering constantly, yet Dora never loses audience sympathy as the misfortunes pile up. She's an offbeat heroine: plain, bad-tempered, hard-drinking, but also vulnerable as she tries to conceal her yearning for love and happiness. Josue is smart without losing his childish innocence, not a Hollywood-style mini adult.
Against a backdrop of beautifully shot roadside vistas, both actors deliver captivating performances in this touching, spiky tale that's also rich in social detail.
A dozen times better than it deserves to be given the hoary premise, given the bravura performances, a sharp script, luscious cinematographer and a magnificent score.