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Set in the backwoods and cinder-block slums of Brazil, Central Station is a mildly saccharine but kind-hearted movie. Part gorgeously photographed road trip, part socially aware South American docudrama, it tells the gently rewarding tale of how people can learn to care for one another under unlikely circumstances, standing fast for friend and adopted family when the easiest thing to do would be to run.

Dora (Fernanda Montenegro) is an aging ex-schoolteacher turned scam artist who takes the money of the illiterate in exchange for writing letters she never mails. Her life is a series of petty misdemeanors until she meets Josué (Vinicius de Oliveira), a motherless boy who lives in the train station where she plies her trade. Sensing the potential for profit, the old woman sells the outspoken child to an "adoption agency" that might be a back-alley organ bank, but after a predictable but credibly rendered attack of conscience she steals him back, the two going on the lam in Brazil's dusty, outbacklike interior. Although their ultimate destination is the rural home of Josué's long-missing father, the pair take quite different emotional journeys. Josué, like any lost kid, is looking for an adult he can finally trust, while Dora is taking a trip back in time, discovering not only motherhood but the possibility of other kinds of love and affection.

Winner of the best picture prize at this year's Berlin film fest, Central Station works a subtle kind of sentimental magic despite occasional cloying lapses. Director Walter Salles sets his story against sweeping and lonely backdrops, the human figures either crowded into the frame or tiny specks against man-made and natural expanses. Central Station may be prototypically "life-affirming," but sometimes there's nothing wrong with an old-fashioned tearjerker that gets the formula right.

Family valued: de Oliveira and Montenegro in Central Station
Walter Salles
Family valued: de Oliveira and Montenegro in Central Station

Details

Central Station
Directed by Walter Salles
Written by Joao Emanuel Carniero and Marcos Bernstein
A Sony Pictures Classics release
Opens November 20

Savior
Directed by Predrag Antonijevic
Written by Robert Orr
A Lions Gate Films release
Opens November 27

Savior, the latest handwringer set in the former Yugoslavia, announces its intentions up front, promising redemption in the title and delving into mess after bloody mess in an attempt to keep that promise. Flirting with exploitation, Savior is a small film built out of extremes. It puts its lead, Guy (Dennis Quaid, whose most salient characteristic is that he's American), through terrorist attack, death of wife and child, shock-fueled killing spree, and escape into the Foreign Legion in its first few minutes, the hysteria only subsiding when he becomes, of all things, a mercenary fighting for Serbia.

Guy's been numbed by years of murder, but his humanity is thawed out by a Serbian woman and her unborn baby. Stumbling home during a prisoner exchange, Vera (Natasa Ninkovic) isn't exactly welcomed by her family. Her rape, the resultant baby, and her failure to commit suicide are seen as a triple shame to Serb national pride. When she's inevitably attacked by a Serb, Guy kills him, Vera and the child's safety becoming the light at the end of his personal tunnel.

Despite the warmth of fulfilled mutual need at its center, Savior's most powerful moments are scenes of frustration. As Guy and Vera try to make it to the safety of a Red Cross outpost, they helplessly watch Vera's kinsmen taken by the enemy, walk into ambushes, and keep walking after Guy is matter-of-factly shot in the side. Directed with understated competence by Predrag Antonijevic, Savior sheds little new light on the war in Bosnia, but it does understand how little acts can amount to a kind of heroism. Distrustful of big-picture historical context, Savior simply gives all its players equal opportunities to be good or evil, leaving it to God and the audience to sort it all out.

 
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