Dora (Fernanda Montenegro), the world-weary older woman at the heart of "Central Station," seems like a kindly soul, sympathetic to the concerns of others. Seated at a table in the midst of Rio de Janeiro's crowded railroad terminus, the retired teacher makes her living by penning letters for the illiterate.
A woman dictates a declaration of love to her jailed boyfriend. An old man sends a sarcastic message to a friend who cheated him. Another woman, accompanied by her 10-year-old son, Josue (Vinicius de Oliveira), wants to let his "worthless" father know of the boy's desire to meet him.
Back at her well-worn apartment, Dora reveals her secret self as she and neighbor Irene (Marilia Pêra) open the letters and laugh. Many go straight into the trash; others go into a desk drawer labeled "purgatory." Opportunism and sheer disregard for others have led Dora to a place where in a sense she's playing God, arbitrarily deciding the fate of those she has helped.
Dora, as played by sad-eyed Brazilian film veteran Montenegro in an Oscar-nominated performance, is promptly given an opportunity to redeem herself. Josue, left an orphan after his mother is killed by a speeding bus, gradually settles into a friendship with the old woman, who allows the boy to stay with her. That act of kindness is undone thanks to a particularly evil transaction. "You're no good," the kid tells his would-be savior.
The two make a desperate escape from dangerous parties in Rio, allowing director Walter Salles to make a transition from mismatched-buddy picture to road movie. The journey from teeming, cosmopolitan Rio to rural Brazil is a trip livened by images influenced by Italian neo-realism. Dora and Josue eventually resign themselves to an uneasy companionship and encounter a series of compelling figures on a trip intended to end at the home of the boy's father. Dora, tired from the travel, the heat and the lack of food, passes out at a shrine filled with religious artifacts and subsequently makes a conversion. But it's a humanist awakening, not a religious one. The members of this odd couple make a real connection, one likely to change the shape of their futures.
"Central Station" could have turned into a tear-jerking guilty pleasure. Instead, it is an emotionally moving story that won't leave viewers feeling manipulated. That's a rarity.