Friday, October 12, 2007


The Close-Up as Revelation: Dora the Explorer

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Close-Up Blog-a-thon being coordinated by Matt Zoller Seitz at The House Next Door.

By Odienator
In Central Station, two characters embark on that cinematic shorthand for bonding, the road trip. The crotchety older woman and the streetwise kid learn about each other and it spurs their personal growth. It’s been done before, and it will be done again. Yet, cliché isn’t a bad thing if it’s done right, and Central Station benefits from two fine performances by its leads.

The film is darker than standard road trip fare. Dora (Fernanda Montenegro) is a mean, cynical and condescending individual. She writes letters for illiterate people, letters full of hope and dreams that she frequently mocks and infrequently mails. She revels in the misfortune of others, and has no time nor pity for the young boy orphaned in front of her letter writing stand by a speeding bus. Dora is no stranger to death, and it seems neither is Josue (Vinicius de Olivera), the young boy whose mother’s last official act was commissioning a letter to Josue’s dad. Coldly, she dismisses the boy when he demands the letter back, leaving him to sleep on the street.

Dora winds up taking the boy in, and we assume this is where the ice melts around her heart. Then she sells Josue to a suspicious adoption ring for money to buy a new TV. Even after her girlfriend (Pixote’s Marilia Pera) tells her that Josue will probably be butchered for his organs, Dora seems unmoved, and by this point, irredeemable. Then, Dora steals Josue back, an action fueled more by guilt and appearances than actual decency, and embarks with him on a trip to find his father. On this journey, Dora discovers Josue is sharper than she thinks, and Josue notices a humanity in Dora that she doesn’t realize has returned until the scene depicted in these close-ups.

Dora is so unlikable even director Walter Salles’ camera doesn’t want to get too close to her. This makes his spare use of close-ups of Montenegro more noticeable. His camera catches her putting on lipstick in a bathroom mirror, sneaking up on her as she pretties herself for the truck driver with whom she and Josue have been riding. He will repeat this shot as Dora applies makeup just before sneaking out of Josue’s uncle’s home, leaving Josue for good. Dora sees her reflection, but it isn’t until the final scene that she is convinced she has changed.

In a big Hollywood film, Dora and Josue would have a big “thanks-for-the-memories” tearful goodbye and music would swell. Salles gives us a tearful goodbye where the two characters never say it in person, because the most important aspect of their journey isn’t the bond they have shared, but how it affects their self-discovery.

Salles depicts this is a wonderfully old fashioned cross-cutting of Josue running in the hopes of catching Dora before she leaves, and Dora riding the bus back home. He accomplishes two things here, first assuring us that he has no intention of going for the easy manipulation, then bringing full circle the events of the film. Dora’s first and last interaction with Josue revolves around a letter, the latter instance is narrated by Montenegro as she writes it—another nice old-fashioned movie touch. As we hear Dora’s words, we see Josue stop in the road and look at a picture he took with Dora. Dora does the same thing with a similar little viewfinder. Then Josue smiles.

Dora smiles too, but it is much more than that.

Montenegro plays this last scene in silence, letting her tears and her facial expressions tell all. She goes through several emotions in quick succession, one of which seems to be genuine surprise at her emotional reaction. It’s as if she’s saying “I can’t believe that kid really got to me. God bless the little bastard.” The last shot is her shaking her head with equal parts joy and disbelief. It is a wonderful scene that earns that lump in your throat. Watch this scene, and then ask yourself what the Academy was thinking when they gave her Oscar to Gwyneth Paltrow.

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I loved Fernanda in Central Station. She certainly should have won the Oscar for best actress, but I guess they couldn't bear to give two acting Oscars to actors in foreign language films the same year and opted to go for the buffoonery of Roberto Benigni instead.
This movie caught me by surprise. I remember thinking -- as you apparently did -- that if you changed the casting and the locales but kept the story, it could be a Hollywood prestige picture easily. And it certainly has a big, glossy tearjerker feel. But the direction, the atmospheric details and the carefully photographed and edited performances dry out what could have been a shamelessly manipulative piece. Somehow I was reminded of Hemingway, whose fiction would be unbearably melodramatic and trite if he used more adjectives and semicolons.
It's a lovely film - as you say, the material would seem to scream out for an approach favoring easy sentimentality, but Salles shows remarkable restraint - and the film is all the more moving that it would be if the audience was ware that their buttons were being pushed.

I'll tell you what Academy members were thinking when they opted for Gwyneth Paltrow instead. It was either (a) Man, she's hot...I'd like to tap that ass, (b) She was totally awesome (this response is reserved for those who either have no taste or were just re-introduced in society after an extended stay in a mental facility), or (c) If I do like Harvey Weinstein says, and let him review my ballot and mail it for me, maybe he'll cast me in his next shitty piece of Oscarbait and not blackball me as he's threatened to do. Either way, she should be clubbed to death with that little golden goodie as a warning to other crappy actresses who buy into their own hype and become insufferable egotists. And name their children Apple.

Yes, this is how I talk when I go off the medication. Wanna make something of it?
Matt, I saw this movie in Manhattan on Christmas Day at the Angelika Film Center. The ending made me cry, and I was so moved and astonished by Montenegro and de Oliviera that Central Station was my #1 film of 1998.

And funny you mention Hemingway. I went to the Hemingway house in Key West today. It has cats. This is not good. I'm a dog person.

Josh, between Paltrow and Jessica Lange, I have concluded that you have an issue with blondes! I liked Paltrow in Shakespeare (I liked the movie quite a bit as well--sue me) but I think she deserved the Oscar like that little girl of hers deserved to be named Apple. Of course, she has enough money to pay for Apple's therapy, so I guess it's OK to name your kid after fruit. If Apple marries Fiona Apple, her name would be Apple Apple!

Montenegro gave a speech where she said something to the effect of "Hollywood always gives Oscar to the hot little bitch." I am not sure I got the quote right, but I know she said "beetch." In any case, Montenegro wuz robbed. I can watch the last five minutes of Central Station out of context and still be reduced to tears.

Newsflash: Gwyneth Paltrow's ego has crushed Josh R. into an apple flavored pancake. Send get well cards to Ed Copeland on Film.
You are not the first to observe that I have a "blonde" issue. Mr. Copeland has an entire dossier on it.

I like Zellweger, but she hasn't wowed me since Bridget Jones. Liv Ullmann and Julie Christie kick some serious ass. Literally -- they're teaming up for the next Tarantino flick. Imagine how much more fierce Kill Bill would have been with two post-menopausal chicks duking it out. Wow, that was bad. Mom, I'm sorry. In any event, I heard the original cut of Cries and Whispers had Liv going to town on Ingrid Thulin with a scimitar. Art, schmart...broads with swords are hot.
I heard the original cut of Cries and Whispers had Liv going to town on Ingrid Thulin with a scimitar.

Now that's scarier than Ullman in that horrendous musical remake of Lost Horizon!

Renee Zellweger was wonderful in Bridget Jones, and I thought she was the best thing about Cold Mountain (which stars another on your hit list, Nicole Kidman, who ISN'T good in it).

Just for you, I'm presenting a close-up of a blonde just for you tomorrow. And I'm going to send you that infamous picture of me as a blonde. I lost a bet. You can hate every blonde in creation, but you can't hate the Blonde Odienator!
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