In the early ’80s, it looked as if there might be a new wave of Brazilian filmmaking, but it fizzled the moment director Hector Babenco (“Pixote”) went Hollywood. Now, like a wildflower growing in long-scorched earth, we have “Central Station,” the breakthrough feature from the Brazilian director Walter Salles, and it’s a richly tender and moving experience. As Dora, a prickly, taunting wretch who makes money writing letters for illiterate citizens in Rio’s Central Station (she then reads them to her roommate and tosses them away), the great actress Fernanda Montenegro, at 67, unfurls a face that’s blobby yet harsh, like a wadded-up lifetime of crushed dreams. Dora meets Josue (Vinicius de Oliveira), a 9-year-old boy whose mother has just died, and, for reasons that have mostly to do with her own fear and survival, she takes him on a bus trip to return him to his long-lost father.
As they pass through one leisurely incident after another, that face seems to relax and uncurl; it begins to respond, once again, to the world around it. In outline, “Central Station” recalls many of the bogusly sticky adult-kid bonding tales that have been the bane of foreign cinema for too long, but Salles, like De Sica and Renoir, displays a pure and unpatronizing feel for the poetry of broken lives. His movie is really about that most everyday of miracles: the rebirth of hope.