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Life imitates art at setting for 'Central Station'

A boy runs across the platform of Don Pedro II Station to secure seats on the train.
The station's 134-meter clock tower, a local landmark, was featured prominently in the film "Central Station."
A nearby Rio de Janeiro slum
St. Christovao Square near the old town is a popular event space.

Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

Going beyond the crowded platform and reaching the underground level of Don Pedro II Station, one sees a "letter center" standing in the corner of a big room lined with government branch offices.

In the center is a service counter with four old computers. Two years ago, the place began to offer a service writing letters and making other documents for illiterate people through dictation. It is a popular feature at this small station, located in the old town section of Rio de Janeiro.

"There are about 40 customers every day. Letters of love, family affection, self-reflection--people express their feelings quite honestly here," said Nathale Caruso, a 29-year-old manager at the center.

Rosinei de Lima, 35, who sells cosmetics at a street stall, came here when she heard that her 13-year-old son, Leonardo, had disappeared.

He was living with Rosinei's mother in Paraiba State, 1,900 kilometers from Rio. It has been five years since she last saw him.

"I don't know if he was in an accident or ran away," she said. "My mother and I don't have phones, and we can't read or write. I'm trying to find a way to contact her."

After talking to the center's staff for about 30 minutes, she "wrote" to her mother for the first time.

"If we find Leonardo, I will live with him. I had to rely on you five years ago as I had no job, but Leo is my treasure," the letter said.

The station, popular for its narrow clock tower, was one of the settings for the 1998 film "Central Station," which won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival. In the film, actress Fernanda Montenegro plays an old woman who writes letters for people at the station.

"The film portrayed the station without exaggeration. The place is for those from the countryside who have found no place to go in the city, or those with no homes," said Prof. Marilena Barboza of Rio de Janeiro State University. "However, the main character was fictitious. There is no known record of someone writing for other people at the station."

With the film achieving international success, the fictitious service grew in fame by word of mouth, and the municipal government decided to start a similar service.

In an adjacent room, classes are held to teach people how to read and write.

(November. 18, 2005)
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