I've been studying the Brazilian film Central Station this week. It's always been a favorite of mine, but I never looked at the mechanics too closely.
I'm studying it because I am working out a story idea with a similar main character. Dora, the lead in Central Station, is a bitter old woman who makes money writing letters for illiterate people at the bus station. She's a liar and a cheat. She usually doesn't bother to mail the letters and just pockets the money.
One day a mother with a young son is run over by a bus and killed right after paying for a letter. Unmoved, she refuses to help the boy with a new letter. She refuses to help for days as the boy sits helpless and alone in the bus station.
But slowly she cannot help but care, and there the story begins. Most of her attempts at help are more or less ways of assuaging her guilt as cheaply and easily as possible. But there's really no way to dump the boy off on someone else. Every time he calls her on her lies and cruel behavior, and slowly she's drawn in. They begin a bus journey together halfway across Brazil to find a father who seems to either not exist or to have nothing to do with the boy.
The script is based on a story idea by the director, Walter Salles. This is not an American movie. Dora lies, cheats and shirks her duty practically up to the climax. She's no Julia Roberts. Rene Zellweger would run screaming from this script. Meryl Streep's agent would hide this script from her.
I'd started studying the movie by looking for how the writers maintain character sympathy for this tough old broad. They employ a couple strategies. Dora's punished every time she lies or cheats, and usually by the boy. So her amoral behavior moves the plot forward (and it's often very entertaining).
Her best friend functions as a kind of Greek chorus with an on/off switch. She's brought a voice of conscience into her life, even if she has no conscience of her own.
When she's faced with her own cruelty, she reacts and moves to fix the situation -- very quickly. We're not allowed to think she's abysmally bad for more than a scene. There's always hope for redemption, no matter how unlikely.
But I realized that all these are more or less strategies for keeping Dora in the ballpark with character sympathy. Why is it so deeply moving?
Dora crosses an astonishing dramatic distance, from unfeeling, dishonest and selfish to someone who sacrifices herself completely to find this boy's family. It's much more moving than if she'd been plucky, with a heart of gold, slightly obscured by the fig leaf of some tepid misbehavior. The writers found the heart of the story. They knew why they were writing it. They aimed straight at it, rather than at carefully balanced character palettes and all that. They saw the big picture, and the mechanics fell into line.
There's a lot I could say here, but I won't go on. If you read this blog regularly, you might want to think about the movie in terms of the quantum theory mumbo jumbo I was going on about: each beat somehow recapitulates the overall structure. On a more mainstream level, the structure of the script clearly lays out the standard 12 beats of the three acts. The writers are true professionals who are clearly profoundly aware of theory and practice of screenwriting.
But what's important is that they clearly wanted to write the story on a deep and personal level.