Cynical, middle-aged Dora (Fernanda Montenegro) is a retired schoolteacher who makes ends meet by writing letters for Rio de Janeiro's illiterates out of a booth in the city's main subway station. She's something of a scam artist: Most of the letters are never sent, either tossed in the trash or saved in a drawer, depending on what she decides during evening sessions with her neighbor and pal Irene (Marilia P겡).
Ten-year-old Josu頨Vinicius de Oliveira) never knew his father, but his mother never gave up hope. She hires Dora to write a letter to an address in the Brazilian interior, but the next day she's killed in a traffic accident. The orphaned Josu頴akes up residence near Dora's stall, eyeing her accusingly as if he knows she never sent the letter.
The two, of course, are destined to be together. Dora takes pity on the homeless kid and takes him in. Still new to the idea of selflessness, however, she tries to make a buck off him, an act that leads to self-realization. Dora then puts her own life on the line to help Josu頦ind his father—using the years-old address from the letter she never sent.
Needless to say, as they make their way across country by bus, truck, and foot, drifting from one stranger to another, the angry, abandoned Josu頢egins to melt Dora's calcified heart, and vice versa.
Director Walter Salles effectively taps the sentimental streak that turns foreign films into international hits, and Central Station tugs the heartstrings with the best of them. Fernanda Montenegro deserves much of the credit. Dora is a showy centerpiece role tailormade for a cinema diva to strut her stuff, and Montenegro's gritty portrait captures all the poignant power of a woman rediscovering her dormant emotional life. Newcomer Vinicius de Oliveira is alternately sullen and sweet, not quite capturing the defiance born of fear and rage, but doing his best under the circumstances. As they wander through the backroads, truck stops, and prefabricated cities of the Brazilian interior, the two isolated, lost souls grow together into a touching little family. In the best road movie tradition Central Station offers us two journeys: the physical trek through the heart of Brazil and the emotional voyage to selfhood.