Central Station harks back to the type of old movie which often starred Wallace Beery with Jackie Cooper or Margaret O'Brien -- the kind where a cranky but essentially lovable cynic's frozen heart is thawed by a hapless and, not incidentally, cute little kid. It's the sort of sentimental claptrap which many otherwise sophisticated people find palatable as long as it's imported.

Our Wallace Beery this time is the famous Brazilian actress Fernanda Montenegro as Dora, who works in a train station in Rio de Janeiro, writing letters for illiterates at a dollar a throw, postage included. This would seem like semisaintly work if it weren't for the fact that, at the end of each day, she takes the unposted letters home and goes through them with her friend Irene (Marilia Pera of Pixote fame, wasted in a small role), deciding which ones to tear up and which ones to toss into a drawer and maybe get around to mailing some day.

This sweet scam is disrupted when a woman for whom she has written two letters is hit by a bus outside the station, leaving behind her 9-year-old son (Vinicius de Oliveira). Of course, the old curmudgeon and the abandoned child are going to become a pair and head down that well-beaten path to redemption and tears. The ending, in fact, is so shameless -- and artless -- in its appeal to our tenderer feelings that, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it would take a heart of stone not to groan.

Walter Salles has directed Station with style to spare -- one of his most virtuoso passages, the pursuit and summary execution of a shoplifter, is presented as an aside -- and the first part of the film, set in and around the station, buzzes with promise. But once the con lady and the orphan hit the road in search of his estranged father, the film becomes slack as it idles toward its familiar catharsis.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].

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