700 words on... understanding society through films

Want to understand more about a society? You may be interested in a film module. This article looks at the film 'Central do Brasil'.

Films are a million times richer, more enigmatic and meaningful when you are able to explore the reasons as to why they where made.

Studying languages at university covers a lot more than just learning grammar and new words; there is an enormous range of content units that focus on the cultures, history, politics, philosophy, sociology, economics, geography and the literatures, both historical and contemporary, of the societies of the language concerned.

In one module, I had the chance to learn all about key societal issues in Brazil, portrayed through film yet still critical and reflective of Brazilian life. I had previously watched the film Central do Brasil before I started uni but I never really clicked on to the social criticism that in fact forms the basis of the film. Some scenes I never fully understood and it was difficult to laugh at the politically satirical comedy (and this wasn't just because I couldn't speak Portuguese!). I still thought it was a great film with fantastic imagery. A few years on, in one of my Portuguese content units, we studied the culture and society of the Portuguese Speaking world through its literature, cinema, song and photography: much to my amazement, Central do Brasil was used to depict the society, culture and politics of Brazil in the late 1990s.

The film, directed by Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles, is not as emotional and saccharine as it may first appear; Salles's cinematic quality dazzles and captivates rather than bringing a tear to your eye. The film's success has been marked with 29 wins at festivals worldwide.

The film focuses on Dora, once a school teacher but now a sour and cynical letter-writer for the illiterate migrant people who flock to Brazil's largest train station - Central do Brasil (Central Station) in Rio de Janeiro - desperately hoping to contact loved ones elsewhere in the country. At the end of each day Dora, along with her neighbour, mocks the letters of the day's unfortunate, whose letters she never actually sends, so she can revel in the small distance that separates her from the entirely disenfranchised and impoverished citizens that infamously live in Rio. One day, a single mother and her 9 year old son, Josue, ask Dora to write a letter to the boy's father asking him to meet his son. Unfortunately and unexpectedly, the woman is then run over; killed on the busy streets of Rio. The boy instantly becomes an urchin to Dora. A thorn in her side, Dora sells the boy, albeit unbeknown, to organ dealers (who in fact want to kill Josue for his body parts and sell them on the black market) just so she can afford a new television set. But when Dora realises the dire fate of the boy, she rescues him. Together they flee the gangsters who are now pursuing them for payment money and set off in search of the boy's father. The journey takes them from the heart of Brazil into the rural, poor, barren northeast; the boy's infantilism and integrity force Dora to embark on a journey of grief, rejection and loss.

In fact Central do Brasil represents hopes for the future at the end of yet another disappointing decade in Brazil and addresses some of the social tensions and issues of Brazilian society at that time. The film is set in 1998 amidst continuing social and economic problems following the 1992 impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello and the optimistic election of Fernando Henrique Cordoso; surrounded by strife, corruption, scandal and a lack of state funding for the Brazilian film industry. Salles clearly seeks to respond to the growing disenchantment and cynicism among the Brazilian population. The social criticism is effectively expressed and combined with optimism and hope for the two main characters and indirectly for the Brazilian society as a whole.

The film's title Central of Brasil implies that Rio de Janeiro is the heart of Brazil: a city of superlatives, it has a monopoly over any other Brazilian city in terms of the highest concentration of wealth, the highest numbers of unemployment, the highest numbers of people living in poverty and misery. The film criticizes the stark social contradictions present in Brazil in the late 1990s. This is seen through the journey that the two main characters undertake. Mass internal migration began in Brazil in the early 1960s from the rural Sertão region in the northeast southwards to the heart of Brazil in search of a more prosperous life. Ironically, the film follows two main characters as they go against the flow of migration leaving their miserable life in the city for a better life in the Sertão.

The film is shot in a documentary style and can be seen to develop into a travel film, enabling stark contrasts of modern Brazil to be shown: wealth versus poverty, industrialisation versus primitive countryside, literate versus illiterate people, religion and tradition versus corruption. This is all teamed with a simple plot line that recounts a journey of discovery: a discovery of Brazil and of self-discovery for the characters.

The relationship between the two main characters develops throughout the film and their personalities reflect the emotions and feelings of Brazilian people in the late 1990s. In the beginning, Dora is a very cynical and egocentric character which was used as a metaphor for Brazilian sentiment at that time. On the other hand, Josue is an optimistic and energetic character but he is lost and alone. These different and contrasting characters gradually grow closer together and more understanding of each other as their journey progresses north. Dora is seen to rediscover compassion for others and a moral conscience. Meanwhile, Josue discovers his new life with his family in the Sertão. The two main characters discover solutions to their problematic relationship through mutual respect and teamwork. The final tone of the film is one that implies the repelling of negativity, looking towards the future in order to find solidarity with others and to work with others for the common good. It is possible that this film is, in fact, offering advice to Brazil as a whole.

The uniformity, predictability and blunt humour of Hollywood films can never match the intelligence, cynicism and powerful cinematography of World Cinema. If you pop down to your local shop, you're bound to find a world cinema section: films on Chinese martial arts, Japanese pop culture, Mexican gang lands, French love and German comedy. These films are great to watch on their own - something different to usual Hollywood stuff, their unknown but brilliant actors teamed with enchanting and captivating plots. But these films are a million times richer, more enigmatic and meaningful when you are able to explore the reasons as to why the film was made; the societal and gender issues and the political upheavals. Knowing the context behind the plot makes the film seem ever more real and poignant. Study languages at university and you too can have the chance to appreciate and understand the world that little bit more.