Fernanda Montenegro belongs in the little category of actors who received Oscar nominations for non-English speaking roles. In the Brazilian movie Central do Brasil, she played Dora, a delusional and bitter woman who earns money by writing letters for illiterate people at the central station in Rio de Janeiro.
Fernanda Montenegro gives the kind of “rough woman with a heart of gold” performance that is so easy to admire when done right. And she certainly does it right. Fernanda Montenegro has a very distinctive, unique face that is perfectly able to communicate anger, frustration and bitterness without becoming too appalling and maybe distance the character from the viewer. Instead, she is able to combine almost grandmother-like qualities with a strong and unfriendly exterior. The biggest success of her performance is the fact that Fernanda Montenegro shows that at the beginning of the movie Dora does not possess any real loving or kind traces in her character as her hard life has turned her into the woman she is today – a typical woman living in a big city full of isolation and loneliness. She has contact to a friend, she can be happy and lively with her but the moment she enters the train to work, she distances herself from everybody and becomes part of the moving masses in the big cities that don’t interact, stay away from each other and don’t show any inner feelings. It’s the meeting with the little boy Josué for whom she has to take care that changes her character but Fernanda Montenegro demonstrates in her performances that the love and kindness in Dora isn’t something that suddenly comes out of nowhere but rather has always been in her but has been repressed all these years because she never needed these characteristics to survive in the city. She probably even forgot that she ever had them but during the run of the movie, they are slowly coming back.
In playing this process in Dora, Fernanda Montenegro never tries to manipulate the audience but makes her character’s actions and intentions constantly believable and is always in control of what she wants Dora to communicate to the audience without playing ‘for the audience’.
Fernanda Montenegro plays the situations of her life in a very matter-of-fact way and so tells much more about Dora and her background than the script ever suggests. The way she first rejects Josué even though he just lost his mother and is alone shows how much she has alienated herself from people. But even though this is not a story about the loneliness of elderly people as Dora knows precisely what she wants and also has friends of her own. But she doesn’t want to have too much contact to that little boy since he is constantly asking about the letter that Dora wrote for him and his mother and Dora is afraid that her secret may be revealed: the fact that she never sends the letters she writes. She keeps them at home and sometimes even destroys them and mostly decides that it would be better for the people if the letters are not sent. Fernanda Montenegro shows in her early scenes that she mostly despises her customers and looks down on them – it seems that from her point of view, she has the right to decide what’s best for them or she simply doesn’t send the letters because she dislikes the people who made her wrote them. Maybe it’s the hate for her life that makes her act this way. Also the matter-of-fact way in which Dora steals from a little shop right after she got angry at Josué for stealing there himself tells about her character and Fernanda Montenegro never shows any sign in Dora that she recognizes her own hypocrisy – for her, stealing is probably a part of life but it’s still bad so she has to be angry at Josué for doing it.
It’s also interesting to watch how Dora tries to get involved with a religious truck driver. Fernanda Montenegro tries to soften Dora, make her seem more appealing but she already seems to know that it’s no use. So when the man drives away from her, it doesn’t seem like such a big surprise even though Fernanda Montenegro shows that Dora really had hope and dreams regarding this man.
Her best and most moving moments come towards the end of the movie when she unites Josué with his two brothers and later, when she gets on the bus and starts to write a letter to him. Fernanda Montenegro wonderfully displays the sadness and joy that both overcome Dora at this moment. The sadness for leaving Josué behind but also the joy for having experienced this trip that showed her new sides of her own character to herself. It seems as if this trip had brought back feelings and emotions that Dora had forgotten about a long time ago but now the sheer sensation that there is more inside of her than she imagined shows that Dora has developed herself. It’s doubtful if the life in the city to which she returns will allow her to keep her new spirits but it’s a joy to watch her express them in the subtle way that Fernanda Montenegro does in the last moments of Central do Brasil.
For her impressive and captivating performance that beautifully carries the movie’s story and message she gets