American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
The tone of life in Rio de Janeiro is established in an early scene in Walter Salles' "Central Station," as a train pulls alongside the platform and passengers crawl through the windows to grab seats ahead of the people who enter through the doors. In this dog-eat-dog world, Dora (Fernanda Montenegro) has a little stand in the rail station where she writes letters for people who are illiterate.
A cynic, she destroys most of the letters. One day a mother and son use her services to dictate a letter to the woman's missing husband. Soon after, the mother is struck and killed by a bus. The kid knows one person in Rio: Dora. He approaches her for help, and her response is brief: "Scram!" The key to the power of "Central Station" is in the way that word echoes down through most of the film. This is not a heartwarming movie about a woman trying to help a pathetic orphan, but a hard-edged film about a woman who thinks only of her own needs. After various attempts to rid herself of young Josue (Vincius de Oliveira), she finally sells him to an adoption agency and uses the money to buy herself a new TV set.
There's not a shred of doubt or remorse as she settles down before the new set. But the whole story is known by her friend Irene (Marilia Pera, who played the prostitute who adopts the street kid in "Pixote"). "Those children aren't adopted!" she cries. "They're killed, and their organs are sold!" As if it is a great deal of bother, Dora then steals Josue back from the "orphanage," and finds herself, against her will and beyond her comprehension, trying to help him find his father, who lives far away in an interior city.
"Central Station" then settles into the pleasures of a road movie, in which we see modern Brazil through the eyes of the characters: the long-haul trucks that are the lifeline of commerce, the sprawling new housing developments, the hybrid religious ceremonies, the blend of old ways and the 20th century. Whether they find the father is not really the point; the film is about their journey and relationship.