Given its subject matter, Central Station shouldn't be as good as it is. Fortunately, director Walter Salles fashions several familiar cinematic stand-bysthe orphan looking for his father, the road movie, the search for redemptioninto a special film. While the cinematography is gorgeous and the script extremely sharp, Central Station owes much of its strength to its two mismatched leads. Fernanda Montenegro, in a performance of great depth and honesty, plays a cynical, retired schoolteacher who sells her letter-writing skills to illiterate citizens only to later tear up or toss out the final products. The plight of a recently orphaned 9-year-old boy (Vinicius De Oliveira), however, touches something in her hardened heart, and the two leave Rio de Janeiro in search of the boy's father. De Oliveira is no wide-eyed moppet, and his bitterness and street smarts match that of his middle-aged caretaker. Montenegro, for her part, has the kind of weathered but emotive face that speaks long monologues without saying a word. That the two traveling companions discover they have much in common is preordained. What's surprising is how well Salles captures the way bustling cities full of harried commuters and hidden dangers foster loneliness, the way religion makes friends of strangers, and the way cherished memories sometimes make up for the tragic twists and turns of life.