The Individuation Process
Walter Salles’s movie: Central Station
One of my favorites quotes on Individuation by C. G. Jung is:
I use the term “individuation” to denote the process by which a person becomes a psychological, “in-dividual”, that is, a separate, indivisible unity or “whole”
Individuation is a process rather than a final product, a journey of self-discovery rather than a final destination, a circumambulation rather than a straight trajectory.
Central Station deals with such a journey. The movie was meaningful for me on many levels; I had already decided to write on the movie when I was called back to France where my father was in the last days of his life. The theme of the movie -the quest for the father- became then synchronistic and it held a deep personal meaning. I could relate to both characters in turn; Josue with his intense and hopeful search for his missing father, as well Dora with her initial cynicism, anger and isolation. I became literally obsessed with the movie, I watched it many times and it accompanied me along the way. What did it mean, what does it mean to individuate, to become fully oneself, a whole, indivisible person, distinct from other people or collective psychology? How do we distinguish between being distinct from other people and being estranged from them?
I believe that the process of individuation is a process informed by the archetypal idea of wholeness that transcends consciousness, the archetype of the Self.
C. G. Jung writes:
The goal of individuation is the synthesis of the self
It is a “coming-to-be of the Self.”
How does the Self manifest in tragic circumstances? How does it manifest in the movie?
Is there “a process of revelation, assimilation and transformation?”
Although I found a lot of resonance with the movie on a personal level, I will concentrate on the movie per se and look at the process of individuation mainly through the character of Dora. I will follow the movie and analyze it in terms of its symbols, its structure and content.
Synopsis of the Film
In Central Station a cynical, joyless woman (Dora) crosses paths with a lonely young boy (Josue).
Dora is a retired schoolteacher who earns her living writing letters for the illiterate at the Rio de Janeiro Central Station. She spends all day listening to the heartfelt thoughts of strangers, she writes them down, takes the money and goes home. There she invites her friend Irene to join her; they read the letters together and make cruel jokes and remarks on the contents of the letters. Dora does not mail the letters, they are either thrown directly into the garbage or await in a “purgatory” drawer to be redeemed or discarded.
Then one day, a visit by Josue and his mother permanently alters Dora’s world. The mother dictates a beseeching letter to her absent husband, then leaves the station and is killed by a bus. Suddenly, Josue has no one to go to and no place to go. Dora grudgingly takes him home for a while but has already agreed to sell him to an adoption racket for money to buy a new television set.
When her friend Irene discovers Dora’s plan and confronts her, Dora decides to rescue him and abruptly decides to leave town. She reluctantly agrees on accompanying Josue on a search for his father. They both set up on a long journey into the countryside, into parts unknown to them both geographically and psychologically.
The journey is laden with both opportunities for discovery and perils of the soul.
They load a bus which should take them to the place where the father lives; but soon after, on the first stop that the bus makes, Dora decides to leave the boy, gives some money to the truck driver with some instruction to take care of the boy and take him to his destination. She buys a return trip ticket to Rio. But Josue hops off the bus and decides to stay with her.
They are both sitting in a café when they meet Cesar, a truck driver, who is constantly on the road and delivers bags of flour, rice and other essentials to shops in the countryside. He pays for their food and takes them on the road with him. Cesar is a deeply religious man who tries to convert people and recruit youngsters for his church. The three of them quickly form a bond, a strange family unit; Dora feels an attraction for Cesar and tries to get close to him but Cesar becomes scared and leaves abruptly, leaving a forlorn Dora behind.
Dora and Josue go on alone but soon find themselves penniless with nowhere to go. A pilgrimage is taking place in the town where they have stopped. Dora angrily turns against Josue and curses him for their misfortune. Josue runs away among the people attending the pilgrimage. Dora runs after him but she collapses in the place of worship called “The House of Miracles”.
And it is truly a miracle that happens; it is the turning point of the movie. Josue takes care of Dora, he takes over the operations and a renewal takes place.
Josue gets the idea of how to make money when he watches a man asking for three bucks for a picture taken with the representation of a saint. He comes up with the idea of using Dora’s skills as a letter writer. This time people come and dictate letters to Dora but the letters are addressed to a local saint. He charges one dollar per letter (two if they want the letter to be sent!). The venture is extremely successful and they now have enough money to eat, buy clothes and even rent a hotel room for the night.
The renewal also comes on another level: this time, Dora refuses to throw the letters into the garbage and she does post the letters. They carry on their journey towards the place where the father lives. But the father no longer lives there, he has gone away after drinking away his lottery winning. No one knows where he is. Josue is devastated. Dora invites Josue to come back and live with her. She phones Irene and tells her to sell her belongings so that she will have enough money to provide for Josue.
As they are walking, they meet a young man, Isaias, who happens to be Josue’s brother. He is a gentle soul and he brings Josue and Dora back to his place where he lives with his older brother, Moises.
They do not know where their father is. He has been away for months. They have a letter that he sent to Ana, Josue’s mother. It had been sent back to their place with a “no longer living at this address” stamp.
Isaias asks Dora to read it: the letter states his enduring love for Ana and the two sons, Isaias and Moises and assures them of his return.
The two brothers take good care of Josue, they play with him and provide for him. Dora realizes that Josue will be well taken care of. Despite her sadness, she decides to depart and leave Josue in the loving care of his two brothers.
On her way back, as tears are flowing on her face, she writes Josue a letter in which she reveals much of herself and in which she bids him goodbye. She is going back to Rio to face her destiny and she leaves Josue to his new life.
Initial Situation Poverty, Loneliness and Death
In the opening scenes of Walter Salles’s movie Central Station, crowds of Brazilians stream into and out of a Rio de Janeiro train, pushing through doors and windows. In sharp contrast to this image of vitality of people in motion, we meet Dora , a frozen-hearted, sour-faced woman who is the epitome of immobility. Day after day, she sits in the train station and sells her letter-writing skills to all-comers.
Uneducated people, who do not know how to write, trust Dora, a retired teacher, to write under their dictation. The movie opens with people coming to dictate a letter to Dora; among them are Josue and his mother. Josue’s mother starts her letter to Josue’s father, saying: “you are the worst thing that happened to me” but she nevertheless asks him to come back because Josue wants to meet him.
Dora writes the letters, then puts them in her bag and leaves the station after giving a man (Mr Pedrao) a percentage of her earnings of the day. She then gets on a train leaving Rio’s Central Station. She stands alone amid a lot of people, mostly men; she does not speak to anybody and her unadorned face reflects sadness and emptiness. She lives alone in an apartment overlooking the railway tracks, she has “no children, no husband, no family, no dog” as she will say later on. Her apartment is very simple and the surroundings are dismal in their poverty, noisiness and lack of safety. She locks her apartment carefully when she arrives and calls her only friend, Irene, right away.
Together they read the letters, make fun of their writers and Dora either decides to tear the letters or to put them in a “purgatory drawer” for a possible redeeming. When they read the letter of Josue’s mother, Irene is touched by its content (“the little boy wants to reunite his family”) but Dora remains cynical and states that the father is a drunkard and beats his wife. We sense some of Dora’s own projected story.
She is lonely, cynical and has a drab outlook on life. This is reflected in the absence of make-up and in her colorless way of dressing. She seems to have decided that human beings are not to be trusted and that it is not worth her time to take care of them or even to simply fulfill her duty as a letter-writer.
Dora, we sense, does not care about anything nor does she relate to anybody but Irene. She does not engage with life but only goes through the motion of life without actively taking part in it.
Has she lost the connection to any center of value or meaning in her own life?
Although she appears to be deprived of any religious or spiritual interest she is surrounded with religious symbols. The man sitting near her desk in the station reads what seems to be a religious book and sells religious items, and behind Dora’s desk is an altar to the Virgin Mary whose feminine comforting presence stands in sharp contrast to Dora’s coldness, isolation and obliviousness. Is the scene set for a deep spiritual awakening?
Josue and his mother come back to write a second letter to the father; the mother says that she actually wants to see him again: “I am dying to see that bastard again”. This will prove prophetic. As the mother dictates the letter, Josue is playing with his top toy; sometimes rolling the cord around it, sometimes banging it against Dora’s desk, thus arousing her irritation. Dora picks up the top and throws it on the floor. It is as if the toy demands some attention, and sure enough, it will be the instrument that sets up the impending accident, which in turn, will set things in motion in Dora’s life.
As Josue and his mother exit the station hand in hand, they cross the street, Josue is holding his top but someone knocks the top and make it fall on the ground; he lets go of his mother’s hand and runs after it, his mother follows him but does not pay attention to a bus coming towards her; she is run over by the bus and dies.
When the death happens, it seems to be a routine event in the station. We get the sense that accidents like that must happen pretty often. Dora looks at the scene, while the man at the nearby booth signs himself. The only reminder of Josue’s mother’s life is her handkerchief- white, with a yellow flower embroidered on it- which the wind has blown onto the floor. Dora picks it up.
I believe that this is the first thing that shows that something has been touched in Dora.
The symbol of the handkerchief is present through the whole movie, whether it is the mother’s or Dora’s own handkerchief. The handkerchief is a very personal item, which is connected to sweat and tears -Josue’s mother wipes sweat off her brow in the previous scene- it is thus used to provide some relief or comfort. It is connected with a form of water, feminine par excellence. It is not a coincidence if Dora picks it up and keeps it. This may be the first time that she is touched by some emotion even if she does not yet recognize it.
Josue is now an orphan. He is abandoned in a harsh world, he does not know anybody in Rio de Janeiro and has nowhere to go but the station. The station is an anonymous place where everyone has got to fend for oneself and where there is no warmth. He is alone, hungry and penniless; people in the station look at him but no one feeds him. His loneliness is best shown in the scene where he sits at the end of the railway platform and looks at the different tracks intermingling in front of him; the red lights acting as a reminder that things have come to a stop. His only comfort is in praying to the Virgin Mary at the altar in the station.
The world he encounters is a brutal and inhospitable world and he is up for grabs.
The summary execution of a thieving street kid -in long-shot- underscores the seriousness of this waif’s plight. That scene was inspired by real events when a young, unarmed shoplifter of 21 years old was shot outside a super market,. Walter Salles, the movie director explains:
They were the most shocking television images I ever saw; I didn’t want people to forget.”
Mr Pedrao, who acts as the non-official police and has the power to decide on someone’s life, is the one who shoots the young thief. The whole station is ruled by the masculine. We see very few women and the power rests in the hands of men such as Mr Pedrao.
The prima materia of the alchemical process is the harsh reality of a third world country where poverty, loneliness, and death reign supreme. Dora is poor, lonely and oblivious to the fate of her fellow human beings; this is Dora at the initial stage of her individuation process. She displays an initial lack of solidarity for Josue.
Josue comes back and asks Dora to write a letter to his father telling him that his mother “has been hurt”, Dora refuses because Josue has got no money. This is one instance where we see Dora’s energy turn nasty; Josue is challenging her to act differently, to step out of her narrow circle of action and posit an act that would be different, namely to write a letter with no financial compensation, to do a selfless act. This would require an extension of herself and might lead her to re-examine the way she normally lives her life; she angrily refuses.
Something in Josue’s plight nevertheless manages to get through to Dora. She notices that he has been sleeping in the station and is hungry, she reaches out to him, offers him a sandwich (which he refuses) and they both sit on a bench outside the station; it is their first contact and they introduce themselves: (“Josue Fontanele de Paiva” “Isadora Teixera”). Josue says that he is waiting for his mother and Dora tells him that his mother will not be coming, that she is dead. She invites him to her place.
Irene, Dora’s friend, takes a liking to Josue and they spend a very pleasant evening, have dinner and a pleasant conversation. Irene departs and while Dora is in the kitchen, Josue looks around the apartment and discovers the unsent letters in a drawer, he realizes that the letter was never sent to his father. He confronts Dora. This is Dora’s first confrontation with her shadow. Josue is angry and makes Dora promise that she will mail the letters:
-Do you swear you promise?
-I swear I promise
-You are not going to lie again?
-(after a pause) No
But Dora lies again. She has a hidden agenda in inviting Josue to her place; she has accepted Mr Pedrao’s offer to send Josue to an adoption place in exchange for some money. She drops Josue at the adoption place. The next scene shows her pulling a cart loaded with a heavy package, she is bent forward and she walks alone amid buildings made of blocks of concrete. She seems to bow under the yoke…perhaps of her own conscience.
Shortly after, she invites Irene to watch TV and Irene soon discovers that she has sold Josue to an adoption racket . She informs Dora of Josue’s fate; he will be killed and his organs will be sold. Dora was unaware of that fact; she merely disposed of Josue in exchange for money, she did not consider anything but the obvious financial gain. This indicates that Dora is quite unconscious of her social reality; she lives in a world in which she has no real connection nor relatedness to her fellow humans and she treats a human being as a mere commodity that can be exchanged in a barter.
Irene acts as the ethical standpoint, she challenges and confronts Dora with her shadow:
There is a limit to everything, Dora.
One of the first steps on the Individuation path is the realization of the shadow. Like figures in a dream, Josue and Irene point to Dora’s shadowy behavior. Marie-Louise von Franz writes:
When an individual makes an attempt to see his shadow, he becomes aware of (and often ashamed of) those qualities and impulses he denies in himself but can plainly see in other people -such things as egotism, mental laziness and sloppiness; unreal fantasies, schemes and plots; carelessness and cowardice; inordinate love of money and possessions- in short, all the little sins about which he might previously have told himself: “that doesn’t matter; nobody will notice it, and in any case other people do it too.
This seems an accurate description of Dora. The next scene shows her sitting blankly in front of TV, lost in her thoughts, then in bed, tossing and turning, and the empty shelves near her bed -something quite unexpected for a retired teacher!- a mirror image for the emptiness of her life.
Answering the Call
Dora realizes that she has done something wrong and she takes action to rectify it; she takes the risk to go to the adoption center/apartment and she rescues Josue. This represents a real risk because she will have to answer to Mr Pedrao, the organizer and instigator of the adoption racket. He does indeed come and look for her, he is in Irene’s apartment asking for Dora when Dora phones Irene. When Irene realizes what Dora has done, she says:
I always knew that you were a good soldier
Marie-Louise von Franz writes:
The actual process of individuation -the conscious coming-to-terms with one’s own inner center (psychic nucleus) or Self- generally begins with a wounding of the personality and suffering that accompanies it. This initial shock amounts to a sort of “call”, although it is not recognized as such
Dora has answered the call; the first seed of transformation has been planted, there has already been a change; Dora does not stay indifferent to Josue’s fate in the way that she was indifferent to anybody crossing her path, she takes responsibility for her actions and shows courage. Irene is right, Dora is called to be a soldier, she is called to do a heroic task that challenges her modus operandi.
I find Aldo Carotenuto’s words very helpful in his description of the hero’s quest:
The structure of the myth of the hero is always present in the course of our existence, with its three fundamental points: the hero, the evolving ego; the dragon to be fought, namely everything that stands opposed to individual growth; and the treasure, difficult to reach and appearing in the myth in various guises -the captive woman, the pearl, the water of life, the herb of immortality, etc.-which is always related to the birth of the new. Thus the hero’s fight with the dragon is not simply performed once and for all at a particular moment in our development….
This is what Central Station displays: Dora is the heroine, the evolving ego, and she will have to fight her inner dragons along the way; the quest for the treasure difficult to obtain is the quest for the missing father -Josue’s father, but, also, as we will discover, Dora’s father- and the treasure is also much more.
Josue and Dora are set on a mythical journey: Dora needs to leave town because she will run into trouble with Mr Pedrao and Josue wants to go and find his father; they are both in the bus station, ready to set on a journey that will not be linear but will involve “making continuous choices among various directions and possibilities”:
…a life lived in an authentically human way requires continual choices among various directions and different possibilities. This naturally includes the risk of detours and mistakes, not to mention losing one’s way, but the acceptance of this risk is the necessary condition for the search for an individual path.
Josue does not want Dora’s help, he just wants her to give him some money for food – his father will give her the money back –and he wants his mother’s letter back. He does not trust Dora: (“I don’t like you, like I said, you’re no good”). At the last moment, Dora jumps onto the bus and sits near Josue. They look like enemies, (the armrest in between the the two seats is down) and their first conversation is fraught with anger and frustration.
The theme of their conversation is the Father, Josue is excited about meeting his father, he has bought some new clothes to get ready for the special event. Although Dora is cynical about the whole thing, she herself has bought a new shirt (hers got torn when she rescued Josue) and I understand this as a beginning of the transformation process. Clothes are the outward manifestation of our individuality, they are associated with our persona, with the way we present ourselves and want to be “seen” by others; Dora’s clothes are outworn and tattered, she needs some new clothes, some new way of presenting herself to the world.
As they start discussing, although in a recalcitrant way, a new fact starts to emerge: the commonality of their stories. Dora first looks down on Josue’s idealistic vision of his father. In Josue’s eyes, his father has the mythical status of the archetypal father; his name is Jesus and he is a carpenter,
he works too much…he is a carpenter, he works with wood, he makes tables, chairs, doors, tops, houses…all by himself”
Josue’s enthused admiration is met with coldness from Dora. Inebriated, she looks around in the bus and points to a man:
this one is like my father, a saint in the house, a prick outside”
She explains that when she was a little girl, people used to ask her if she was “Dildo’s daughter”. Her father was a womanizer and a drunkard and he eventually abandoned Dora’s mother:
My father wrote a letter saying that he was tired of riding the same bus everyday, meaning my mother and that he was going to ride a taxi, meaning the other woman…but my mother took a taxi too, a space taxi…she died when I was your age”
Josue becomes pensive, there is no more anger on his face. He realizes that his own personal ordeal has got something to do with Dora’s story and that there are points in their respective lives that could be interchanged. They are both orphans of their mother, and in search of the father, a real father for Josue and a reconnection with a dead father for Dora. They are each other ‘s double.
Because of Josue’s quest for his father, Dora begins to reveal some of her own suffering; we are beginning to see that she has had a difficult life where she did not have a meaningful connection to her father and was robbed of the presence of her mother. There were (and still are) sadness, loneliness and anger in her life as there are in Josue’s life.
It seems to me that one of the tasks of Individuation is to be able to revisit the past, and look at it with authenticity and courage, to be able to acknowledge it, stand present to it, be able to sustain the unbelievable tension of the pain, to embrace it and move forward in life. My understanding of Dora is that she never got a chance to do it before meeting Josue, that she had a lot of suffering and sadness that were never fully embraced as such and got transformed into anger, cynicism, isolation and distrust for the whole human race.
We see the beginning of the process but we also witness the limits of Dora’s responsibility; she decides to part her ways with Josue and let him do the journey on his own. Josue is asleep in the bus, so she puts some of her money in his purse and asks the bus driver to safely drive Josue to his destination.
She buys a return bus ticket to Rio, and waits in a café… only to discover Josue sitting in the other room. The journey is taking an unexpected detour, things are not unfolding the way she wants. Not only has he decided to stay with her but he has forgotten his backpack on the bus with the money that she had left him. Dora is left nearly penniless with the responsibility of a little boy, something that she shies from.
Walter Salles films the next scene beautifully. Dora is sitting outside, overwhelmed; she sees a goat with its forelegs broken, which nevertheless tries to walk. The goat stands for a symbol of survival despite physical disability; the implication seems to be that what Dora needs to do is to survive and endure and persist on the path.
The ability to be with one’s own suffering, to endure it and measure oneself against external reality is a trademark of the Individuation Process. This is the second vicissitude in Dora’s heroic journey, the first one was rescuing Josue from the adoption center; indeed the movie can be read as a myth or fairy tale in which the heroine passes through vicissitudes of life that will bring her psychological dimension into focus.
Confirmation with the Animus
The Individuation Process requires an acknowledgment of the forces of the unconscious. One first meets the shadow and then the inner masculine and feminine figures, the animus and anima.
Aldo Carotenuto writes:
The confrontation with the anima for a man and the animus for a woman, … in the sphere of analytical psychology is considered an essential task for anyone who wants to, or rather must, set out on the road to individuation…
The next encounter is with Cesar, a truck driver, who delivers goods to the villages. Cesar is a very religious man, an evangelist, who tries to recruit and convert young children to his church. His truck bears the effigy: “Strength is in everything, but only God is power”. Cesar offers first to pay for their food and offers to give then a lift in his truck. Soon the three of them form a little family unit. For the first time, Dora and Josue smile and laugh. Eros appears in the form of food, shelter and a sense of pleasure. Dora asks Cesar to let Josue drive the truck, and there is sheer joy on Josue’s face as he sits on Cesar’s lap and drive the truck and blows the horn.
Josue helps Cesar unload his truck as they arrive into a village. Josue is hungry and steals a few items from the shop; he goes to Dora and shows her the food (“let’s go and eat it in the truck”); Dora yells at him, telling him that he could go to jail, she tells him to give her the items and that she will go and give them back. Josue puts the items into Dora’s bag; Dora goes back to the shop, but instead of giving them back she steals some more. She is nearly caught and owes her “escape” to Cesar’s intervention; the shop owner apologizes and asks her if she wants to buy anything; her trickster answers:
There is nothing worth buying here!”
This is the first time that an element of humor finds its way in the movie.
When Dora comes back to the truck, Josue confronts her:
you didn’t buy anything you stole even more.”
Josue cannot be fooled by Dora; they have one more thing in common, they are two outsiders doing the same thing to survive, they both steal because they are hungry. They share the hunger and poverty and react in a similar fashion; in this regard they are part of the same family and could truly be taken for brother and sister, or for mother and son.
Eros finds its way in the heart of Dora, she is attracted to Cesar; they spend an evening talking around the campfire, and we sense that the connection could go further if they were not interrupted by a jealous Josue. The following day, she borrows some lipstick from a woman in the washroom but barely knows how to apply it -an indication that she has not been using it for a long long time.
Dora is recovering a certain sense of desire for a man and these are her first attempts to regain some long-lost femininity.
This is already quite different from the beginning of the movie where she appeared as a cynical solitary human being. The cynicism displayed at the beginning of the movie had a price and that price was an infinite solitude. The fact that she has started to relate to Josue and that she already took a certain number of risks for him gives her the possibility, for the first time, to acknowledge the presence of a man. Something new has been constellated. She has started to relate to animus figures (Josue first and then Cesar) and, for the first time, tries to put her feelings in the open.
It is all the more heartbreaking when Cesar gets scared and leaves her. This is the first time that we see her cry; the emotions portrayed are no longer anger and frustration but the deep pain of rejection. It is an acknowledgment of her true feelings; her shield has started to crack and she shows her utter vulnerability and she is authentic in her suffering.
The Process of Individuation necessitates a real connection to our inner center, one needs to turn inward and listen to the soul. It is a process of differentiation in the sense that one is no longer only one’s outward appearance (the persona), one is no longer only a role in the outside world but one needs to focus inward and cater to the needs of the inner realm. One needs to draw the rays of the sun inward and attend to the soul:
After having lavished its light upon the world, the sun withdraws its rays in order to illuminate itself”
Authenticity and vulnerability start to surface as Dora is abandoned by Cesar as she was abandoned by her father. Josue, a manifestation of her young animus, consoles her and comforts her in her femininity.
Can I tell you something? You look a lot prettier with lipstick on”.
Manifestation of Spirit
They board a truck that transports a lot of people. Dora does not have the money to pay for the trip and she gives the truck driver her watch. This is an action that can be read symbolically. It can be an indication that Dora has now a different relationship to time. This theme will be developed later on in the movie, but already we see that chronological time may slowly shift to a different sense of time, Chronos may slowly surrender to Kairos.
The sense of time is marked by the slow rhythm and incantation-like song of a black woman at the back of the truck. She is close to a storm-light (the light that illuminates the way of the individual lost in a storm) and she leads them in a prayer/song:
Virgin Mary of the candlelight, guide me to the end of my journey.
The scene was not actually intended to be in the film but the movie crew met the black woman by chance, she knew how to sing the song that had so much to do with Josue and Dora’s ordeal that the director decided to include the scene. The scene was improvised -like most crowd scenes in the movie-and most of the people in the truck were real people and not actors. Walter Salles comments:
they brought an honesty and gave an impression of true realism and wonder
Walter Salles’s choice of realism and authenticity echoes the budding authenticity of the main character.
We remember that Josue went to pray to the altar of the Virgin Mary when his mother had just died and he found himself abandoned in Central Station. It was then, and is here, the comforting religious beacon of hope in a harsh world. It is also a warm feminine presence, that is reinforced by the fact that Josue’s mother taught him that prayer. The warmth and support of the positive mother is remembered via the archetypal presence of the Virgin Mary.
The warmth of the feminine presence also envelops Dora, who is, one more time, in the presence of a religious presence; the Virgin Mary seemed to “preside” over her writing desk in the station, Dora felt close to a man who had a strong connection to religion (Cesar was an Evangelist) and she is now surrounded with people singing a prayer. This paves the way for the next scenes.
In a way similar to a dream, the next scene is very telling, it is suffused with a sense of spirit. Dora and Josue are on a rock in the Sertao, Josue remembers:
Mom always said dad would show me the Sertao one day
He wonders where his mother is and if they gave her a decent funeral, Dora says: “come with me” , they walk down the rock and she holds his hand, she opens her bag and takes his mother’s handkerchief, she hands it over to him and says:
Put your mother’s handkerchief there.
He puts the handkerchief on a man-made altar -a column made of wood with candles, artificial flowers and multi-colored ribbons. Several things are striking. Dora has kept the handkerchief during all that time, she did not discard it the way she used to discard the letters, the death of Josue’s mother must have struck a deep chord in her. She also chooses to listen to Josue’s sadness and to relate to him, she proposes an act that honors the dead and offers a connection beyond life. For the first time, her action shows a real engendering of the soul through authentic care and relatedness for the Other. There is a deep connection both to Josue and to his mother. Dora has included the Other in her life, she has extended herself.
The same extension of herself happens in the next scene. Josue is very excited to meet his father, he wants to look nice for him; Dora helps him get ready, she combs his hair and reassures him:
Don’t worry, your father will like you.
When they are in the house waiting for the father to arrive, Dora says that he is “a good boy” and that they “are friends” . This is a very different situation from the beginning of the movie. Dora has opened her heart to the ordeal that fell upon Josue and there seems to be a real connection between them.
Unfortunately the man whom they meet is not Josue’s father and Josue is very disappointed. This is not the only disappointment, Dora had asked Irene to send her some money but she discovers that Irene sent the money to the wrong address. They are now absolutely penniless, hungry and despairing as to what is next.
This is the situation that we sometimes find in myth or fairy tales when the hero/heroine comes to a place where all the difficulties are against him/her and he/she does not know what to do anymore. Things are a standstill. The heroine can only sit and cry.
When Dora discovers that she has no money, she cries out her despair to God, she does not understand and struggles with the situation:
-Hell! What did I ever do to God to deserve this?
Then she turns angrily to Josue and she curses him:
– You are my punishment.
-I’m hungry…What should we do?
-I don’t know. I don’t know. Your parents should never have had you. Now it’s me that has to put up with you. You’re a curse, you’re a curse.
Josue runs away and she follows him. As all of this is happening, “The Pilgrimage of the Virgin Mary of the Candlelight” is taking place. As Josue is running away and Dora is running after him, people are kneeling down and praying, and their prayers echo the plight of Josue and Dora. They implore:
–Bring a ray of light in the middle of despairing.
-I suffer in my flesh, my bone, my blood. Flood the darkness with light, Lord.
People have stopped all activities to come to the pilgrimage; the only reality is the reality of their faith, they are in contact with the numinosity of the Transcendent and nothing else exists but their relationship to their faith.
Arthur Conn, the producer of the movie, explains:
Most people in Brazil are catholic. The scene moves catholics, of course, but also any believer. It is a movie about faith. We see the natural spontaneous relationship that these people have with God. But it is very telling that the Simon Wiesenthal Institute in Los Angeles made a gala evening in honor of Central Station because it wanted to honor the fact that the film talks about faith but not a particular religion. Three hundred Orthodox Jews waited an hour to thank Walter Salles for his movie”
Josue and Dora are “supported” by a community of faith, even if they do not actively take part in the pilgrimage (“the god-awful pilgrimage” for Dora); they are bathed and surrounded by spirit. The multitude of candlelights illuminate the deep night, the actual night and Josue and Dora’s symbolic “dark night of the soul”; and the stillness and fervor of the pilgrims stand in sharp contrast to Josue and Dora’s frantic run. Immobility meets motion, stillness meets franticness, hope meets despair.
The two realities are side by side, and so are the two concepts of time, Chronos and Kairos. Eternal, sacred time awaits Dora in “the House of Miracles”.
The “House of Miracles” is a reproduction of what one finds in the northern part of Brazil. This is where people bring photos of their relatives, or even part of the bodies of their relatives that they sculpt in wood and they ask for God to help them heal or to bring hope to them. It is such an important part of the Brazilian life that the movie director chose to improvise that scene. The people who are praying are really praying when the scene is shot and the ones outside asking for protection for the whole group are improvising their sentences; the director did not actually expect them to talk at that point. It was purely improvisational material. One more time, reality and fiction merge.
Dora calls “Josue” and collapses in “the House of Miracles”. It is truly the turning point of the movie. The heroine collapses. The ego surrenders to the power of the surrounding spirit and to the power of the Transcendent. The pervading healing energy suffuses the space and the ego can surrender to its power. Dora is no longer alone, she is held in the temenos of the House of Miracles, and she is in the presence of the sacred.
Margaret Meredith writes:
It is amid the sacred that there is an experience of the transcendent, it is in the House of Miracles that the transcendent function can manifest. The house acts as the sacred precinct where the mediation of opposites can occur.
C.G. Jung writes:
When there is full parity of the opposites, attested by the ego’s absolute participation in both, this necessarily leads to a suspension of the will, for the will can no longer operate when every motive has an equally strong countermotive. Since life cannot tolerate a standstill, a damning up of vital energy results, and this would lead to an insupportable condition did not the tension of opposites produce a new, unity function that transcends them. This function arises quite naturally from the regression of libido caused by the blockage
The full parity of opposites is Dora’s budding attachment to Josue on one side and the difficulties and the apparently insurmountable challenges that it entails on the other; her will can no longer operate and her collapse is the symbolic “suspension of the will.”
The tendencies of the conscious and the unconscious are the two factors that together make up the transcendent function. It is called “transcendent” because it makes the transition from one attitude to another organically possible” (my italics)
As we will see, the transition from one attitude to another will be accomplished in an organic way: Josue will be the instigator of the renewal. He enters into the House of Miracles and finds her on the floor.
The next scene takes place outside, Dora is lying with her head on Josue’s lap, he strokes her hair, she wakes up, looks at him a long time,smiles and lies back caressing his knees. The scene is like an inverted “Pieta”; it is the little boy who takes care of the mother figure; in a way he becomes the father of Dora, inverting the expectation that we might have of her mothering him. It is the first gesture of protection for Dora and we really sense her fragility and vulnerability. It is also the first time in the movie that we see Dora relax in the warmth of another human presence, she lets herself go and she uses a tender gesture towards Josue for the first time.
Dora is opening her soul. I believe that she has been touched, both by the numinous experience of the pilgrimage and by the care and love of Josue who knows her well, sees through her, does not judge what she did in the past and accepts her in all the facets of her humanness. She is seen and mirrored by Josue who is the witness of her present life.
Part of the Individuation Process is to be in relationship with the Other, whether it is a friend, partner, member of one’s family or simple acquaintance, and to receive a mirrored view of oneself. The Other acts as a witness of our life and can hold a mirror to our actions.
The task of Individuation is then to be able to sort out in a differentiated way what truly belongs to us and what might be a projection. If it is a projection, it is then important to be able to see it as such and not get carried away by the projection or identify with it; if it is not a projection we need to be able to stand present to what we see being mirrored, whether it is our shadow side or our light side; to be able to “be with what is”.
Josue presents and confronts her with her shadow but he is also the agent that allows her to see herself more clearly and realize that she is able to do truly heroic acts such as rescuing him, helping him search for his father and being with him in his sadness.
Things begin to shift, Eros manifests in a sense of play (they both play at throwing coins in a bucket and they laugh) and in the vibrancy of colors. At the beginning of the movie, colors almost do not exist. Dora’s monochromatic vision of life dictates the drab palette of colors; as she begins to engage with life, the colors start to abound and invade the film little by little, as shown by the vibrant colors of the dresses of the two fortune tellers.
Transformation and renewal are brought by Josue; he gets the idea of how to make money when he watches a man asking for three bucks if people want to have their picture taken with a representation of a local saint. He uses his trickster energy (quite similar to Dora, as a matter of fact) and starts to make the announcement :“one buck if you want to send a letter to the saint…two bucks if you want to send it”; even Dora is stunned (“Holy Shit!”). He is now the initiator, the “élan vital” that sets things in motion.
Josue is an embodiment of the child archetype, he acts as the force of renewal that paves the way for a future change, he is “potential future”. Jung writes in The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious:
The child is potential future… The child paves the way for a future change of personality. In the individuation process, it anticipates the figure that comes from the synthesis of conscious and unconscious elements in the personality. It is therefore a symbol which unites the opposites, a mediator, bringer of healing, that is one who makes whole.”.
Josue represents the animating principle of life, a creative élan vital and a new orientation “by means of which everything becomes full of life and enterprise”
People start to come in big numbers to send their letters to the saint, or to a member of their family. But this time things are different, the letters are for the most part, letters of gratitude (“Thank you for sending the rain”), people seem genuinely contented (“I am now the happiest man of the world” ) and happy to have been reunited with their family. This time again, fiction merges with reality in an interesting way. Among the people who dictate their letters to Dora is an old man who is searching to be reunited with his son (“How long has he been away?” “Four years”); that manhad indeed actually been separated from his son in real life. When his son saw the movie, he searched for his father and became reunited with him. Josue and Dora participate in that happiness, they are accomplices (Josue winks at Dora), they work together to find a solution to their financial situation and it works.
Dora: “We are rich
Josue: We can even eat”
Their happiness is captured with two photographs taken of each of them standing besides the representation of the saint. They have now enough money to eat and rent a hotel room for the night. Josue buys a dress for Dora:
I’ll get you this dress as a present. You’ll look much better in that dress.”
Dora’s young animus adorns her, Josue does what a man might do for a woman, to buy her a piece of clothing in which you will look beautiful. By this act, Josue acknowledges as well as encourages Dora’s femininity. The scene in the hotel room is suffused with funny and tender moments where Josue flirts with Dora and Dora laughs with kindness.
The pivotal moments come when Josue wants to put the letters in the garbage. By this act, he meets Dora; this is what she used to do and he would be ready to do what she used to do. But Dora refuses and prevents him from doing so; on the following morning, before getting on the bus, Dora goes to the post-office and posts the letters. This is the real transformation of Dora. She now cares enough about her fellow human beings that she will honor her commitment to them; she acts ethically. The contact with Josue, her inner masculine, enables her to have a meaningful relationship with the world around her. She is no longer an isolated, cynical human being but someone who takes her place within a community of human beings. The authentic relationship that she is slowly building with Josue enlarges her and creates a connection to her center of values. She understands that her life is interwoven with other significant realities and other human beings, that she does not live in a vacuum and thus she makes a meaningful connection to her fellow human beings by honoring her commitments and posting the letters.
To individuate is to allow oneself to be transformed. When Dora meets Josue, she feels he is a burden, a curse. Marie-Louise von Franz speaks of the obligation of the Individuation Process which is often felt as a burden:
This is partly why the obligation attached to the process of individuation is often felt to be a burden rather than an immediate blessing. St Christopher, the patron of all travelers, is a fitting symbol for this experience. According to the legend, he felt an arrogant pride in his tremendous physical strength and was willing to serve only the strongest. First he served a king; but when he saw that the king feared the devil, he left him and became the devil’s servant. Then one day he discovered the crucifix and so he decided to serve Christ if he could find him. He followed the advice of a priest who told him to wait for Christ at a ford. In the years that passed he carried many people across the river. But once, on a dark, stormy night, a small child called out that he wanted to be carried over the river. With the greatest ease, St Christopher lifted the child on to his shoulders, but he walked more slowly with every step, for his burden became heavier and heavier. When he arrived in midstream, he felt “as if he carried the whole universe.” He realized then that he had taken Christ upon his shoulders -and Christ gave him remission of his sins and eternal life.
This miraculous child is a symbol of the Self that literally “depresses” the ordinary human being, even though it is the only thing that can redeem him.”
From being a burden, Josue has come to be someone to whom she is quite attached; a dear friend, a helper, someone in whom she can confide her past wounds. Josue is a symbol of the Self, the archetype of wholeness and regulating center of the psyche, the “transpersonal power that transcends the ego” and allows for change and transformation.
They arrive in the little village where the father lives. The landscape could not stand in sharper contrast to the one of Central Station in Rio de Janeiro. They have started their “pilgrimage”in a very busy and noisy city where people go in and out of the central station without necessarily relating to one another and they have arrived at a little village where people know each other. As a proof of this, the camera lingers on the couple who tenderly greets each other at the arrival of the bus.
As they are walking in the village, Dora tells her story of her relationship with her father. When she was 16, she left home and never saw her father again except once, on the street:
I froze, then found the courage to go up to him. Remember me, I said?Do you recognize me? I could see he hadn’t recognized me. He didn’t recognize his own daughter. He said: “How could I have forgotten such a lovely girl like you?” I told the rat I’d made a mistake and left. I heard he died soon afterwards…You understand?
-You’ll forget me too.
-I don’t want to forget you.
-Even so…you will.
I find this exchange very moving because of the authenticity and vulnerability that it displays. Dora trusts Josue enough to be able to revisit the past and reveal her deepest wounds in her relationship to her father, and she loves Josue enough to be able to open up to her own vulnerability. Loving Josue means that she can lose him and she confesses her fear; he might forget her the way her father did forget her. This is a far cry from the woman we met at the beginning of the movie who wanted to sell a child to an adoption racket in exchange for a TV set.
Sacrifice: finding the treasure and letting it go
Josue’s father is nowhere to be found, he has disappeared in the wilderness one day and no one knows where he is, he is indeed a drunkard who drank his house away. Josue is distraught and walks by himself. Dora goes to find him and offers him to come and live with her (“Why don’t you come with me? I’d really like that kid….you know? I really would.”) They are facing each other and shake hands, on Dora’s initiative.
Dora phones Irene and asks her to sell some of her things, (“the fridge, the sofa…the goddamn TV) so that she can settle somewhere with Josue. She does not know if she wants to come back to Rio (“I’ve made so many mistakes in Rio”). She is aware of what she did and takes full responsibility for it.
Dora is now fully engaged with life, she takes responsibility for who she was and who she has now become, and she is fully committed to the well-being of another human being, Josue. She is not shut “out from the world” but open to it. C. G. Jung defines Individuation as “the coming-to-be of the self” and he adds:
the self comprises infinitely more than a mere ego…It is as much one’s self, and all other selves, as the ego. Individuation does not shut one out from the world, but gathers the world to itself
Dora and Josue’s departure to their destination is fixed for the next day. As they are walking, a young man approaches them, his name is Isaias, he has learned that they were looking for his father and wonders if he could help. Despite Josue’s initial mistrust (he hangs tightly on Dora’s arm and says that he is called Geraldo instead of his real name), they follow Isaias to his home where he lives with his brother, Moises.
When Josue looks around the house he suddenly discovers a portrait of his mother and his father and he knows he has arrived in the right place. Moises appears as sulky and suspicious as Isaias is happy and trusting. The two brothers have taken some land, are “squatting on it”, they took that house after the father lost the other house because of his drinking and they have put in a carpentry shop. Moises is the carpenter and Isaias states that he is now better than the father. As if to prove it, he carves a top for Josue and invites him to finish the work; he puts the safety glasses on him and he guides him the way that a father would guide a son apprentice.
Josue’s happiness is obvious; he holds the top with delight. Things have come full circle, he receives the replacement for the top he lost in such tragic circumstances. The top can be seen as a symbol of a treasure lost and regained, a symbol of the Self.
He joins his brothers in their activities, plays ball with them, laughs and jokes; he seems happy. Dora is watching him. At night they come into the house and Isiais asks Dora to read a letter that their father sent to Ana Fontanele, Josue’s mother, and which came back. The two brothers are illiterate and can’t read the letter. After much hesitation from Moises, Dora reads the letter. The scene explains to the spectator what happened. Nine years ago, Ana Fontanele took off to Rio, she was expecting Josue; the father waited two years for her to come back. He stopped working and started drinking all the time, he sold the house to pay his debts. One day, Isiais woke up to find his father gone and a half-empty bottle; the father has not come back since. Dora steps into the role of a letter-reader rather than a letter-writer:
Ana, my misfortune,
It was hard to find a letter writer to tell you that I finally understood that you went back and found our new little house while I’m here in Rio looking for you. (Josue’s mother and father were in fact in Rio at the same time) I hope I get back before this letter but if it arrives before me, do as I say: wait for me, I’ll be coming home too. I left Moises and Isiais to look after things. Ana, I may work in the mines for a month before coming home but I’ll be back. Please wait. Then, we’ll all be together, me, you, Isiais, Moises…
As she is reading, Dora realizes that there is no mention of Josue, and she adds, after a pause:
and Josue…and Josue whom I can’t wait to meet.”
Josue looks at her gratefully and adds: “He’ll be back.”
The next scene takes place under a starry sky, the atmosphere is of the beauty, calm and fullness of Kairos’s eternal time. It is not longer the hustle and bustle of Central Station, no longer the energy and intensity of the journey towards the destination; they have reached their destination and the present moment holds sacredness.
Josue asks if his father really said that he wanted to meet him:
-Of course, he did.
-I know that he didn’t.
Josue witnesses Dora’s generosity of heart and is grateful. Here again, there is a transformation that is worth noting. Josue used to witness and confront Dora’s shadow, he now witnesses her kindness and selflessness.
Now comes the time for Dora’s final sacrifice. She unfolds the dress that Josue gave her, puts it on, lights two candles, looks at herself in the mirror, puts some lipstick on her lips and a bit of rouge on her cheeks. Fernanda Montenegro, the actress, comments on Dora’s transformation:
She has now the courage to see her face. She is much more beautiful than at the beginning of the movie. She is at peace with herself for the first time. She now knows how to apply the lipstick”
Dora goes into the bedroom of the three brothers, Josue is sleeping in between his two brothers, he seems relaxed and happy. She then puts the two letters of Josue’s parents -the one that Josue’s mother dictated to Dora and the one the father sent to Ana- on the dresser, under their portrait. They are reunited at last, as Josue wanted.
Dora steps out at dawn and walks towards the village to catch the bus. She is wearing the dress and some jewels and she is walking towards a symbolic sunrise. She has decided that Josue would be more happy with his brothers alone and she leaves. She lets go of the treasure hard to obtain in a gesture that is the epitome of selflessness and respect . She is letting Josue live the life that she thinks he is meant to live; it is a heartbreaking moment and tears run down her face, and she stays emotionally within herself as she now writes her own letter on the bus:
I haven’t sent a letter to anyone for a while but I’m sending you this one now. You were right, your father will come back and he surely is all you say he is. I remember riding with my father in the train. I was just a little girl but he let me blow the whistle the whole time. When you’re driving the road in your big truck, remember that I was the first person to have you put your hand on the wheel. It will be better for you to stay with your brothers, you deserve much more than I can give you. If you miss me one day, look at the picture we took together. I’m telling you this because I’m afraid you too may forget me. I long for my father. I long for everything.
In this final statement, Dora reconnects with memories of her own father that she had long forgotten. Dora has thus reclaimed a part of her psyche that she had discarded, she is now reunited with her father like Josue is now reunited with his father. Both have “found” their father, although not in flesh and blood.
Through the journey she has connected with previously unknown facets of her personality, she has truly transformed; relatedness and care, commitment and endurance, steadfastness and patience in the face of suffering, courage and integrity have been the trademarks of her journey.
She has established a meaningful connection beyond herself and has established a real exchange with Josue; she has been truly devoted to him. I am reminded of Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophical writings on the concept of devotion:
A lucid generosity is what should guide our actions. We will assume our own choices and posit as our ends the situations that will be new points of departure for others.
Dora has posited an action which is a point of departure for both of them.
Individuation, I believe, includes the recognition of impermanence. Life is fleeting, people and situations continually change and the hard-to-obtain treasures need to be left behind. One cannot hold to one experience of the Self, it is forever changing. C.G. Jung writes in Memories, Dreams, Reflections:
The life of man is a dubious experiment…Individually, it is so fleeting, so insufficient, that it is literally a miracle that anything can exist and develop at all…
The essence of a human being, -”a splinter of the infinite deity” lies in the acknowledgment of the simultaneous existence of the ephemeral and the eternal.
Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome. Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome. The part that appears above ground lasts only a single summer. Then it withers away -an ephemeral apparition. When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilizations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity. Yet I have never lost a sense of something that lives and endures underneath the eternal flux. What we see is the blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains.
Some final thoughts as “Points of Departure”
The movie ends on Josue and Dora’s parting their way. Is is not an ending as much as a new beginning, an opening on an unknown yet hopeful future. The hope resides in the transformation of the two characters, and especially Dora. The encounter with Josue has revealed her to the wealth of her own psyche and she has assimilated some previously discarded aspects of herself and undergone a deep transformation.
To paraphrase Daryl Sharp in his understanding of Individuation (C. G. Jung Lexicon, A Primer of Terms and Concepts), she has not necessarily overcome her own personal psychology, she has not become perfect but she has become familiar with herself.
The aim is not to overcome one’s personal psychology, to become perfect, but to become familiar with it. Thus individuation involves an increasing awareness of one’s unique psychological reality, including personal strengths and limitations, and at the same time a deeper appreciation of humanity in general
Out of a situation of poverty, loneliness and death, the light has emerged unexpectedly. I opened this essay with a personal reference to a painful situation in which poverty of heart, loneliness and death were present and I find that the following quote from one of Leonard Cohen’s poems/songs very relevant:
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”
The individual is the carrier of life.
The purpose of a person is to be fully human and to find the philosophical stone within herself.
This thing [the philosophical stone] is extracted from you: you are its mineral, and one can find it in you: or, to put it more clearly, they [the alchemists] take it from you. If you recognize this, the love and approbation of the stone will grow within you. Know that this is true without doubt.” (Morienus, Arabian alchemist)
This is truly the goal of Individuation and it lies in the process.
The goal is important only as an idea; the essential thing is the opus which leads to the goal: that is the goal of a lifetime.”
C. G. Jung: The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, in Collected Works, volume 9, part 1, par. 490
C. G. Jung: The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, in Collected Works, volume 9, part 1, par. 278
Margaret Eileen Meredith: The Secret Garden, Temenos for Individuation p 23
Marie-Louise von Franz:The Process of Individuation, in Man and his symbols, conceived and edited by C. G. Jung; p 168.
Marie-Louise von Franz:The Process of Individuation, in Man and his symbols, conceived and edited by C. G. Jung; p 166.
Aldo Carotenuto: The vertical labyrinth, Individuation in Jungian Psychology, p 56
Aldo Carotenuto: The vertical labyrinth, Individuation in Jungian Psychology, p 48
Aldo Carotenuto: The vertical labyrinth, Individuation in Jungian Psychology, p 81
C. G. Jung: The stages of Life”, vol 8, par. 784
Margaret Eileen Meredith: The Secret Garden, Temenos for Individuation p 94
C. G. Jung: Collected Works, volume 6, par. 824
C. G. Jung: The Transcendent Function, in Collected Works, volume 8, par. 145
C. G. Jung: The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, vol. 9, 1, par. 278
Marie-Louise von Franz: The Process of Individuation, in C. G. Jung’s Man and his Symbols, p 199
Marie-Louise von Franz: The Process of Individuation, in C. G. Jung’s Man and his Symbols, p 218-219
Daryl Sharp: C. G. Jung Lexicon, a Primer of Terms and Concepts, p 119
C. G. Jung: On the Nature of the Psyche in Collected Works, volume 8, par 432
Simone de Beauvoir: Pyrrhus and Cineas, in Philosophical Writings, p 124
C. G. Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p 4
C. G. Jung: C. G. Jung Lexicon, A Primer of Terms and Concepts, p 68
Leonard Cohen: Stranger Music, Selected Poems and Songs, p 373
Marie-Louise von Franz: The Process of Individuation, in C. G. Jung’s Man and his Symbols, p 210
C. G. Jung: The Psychology of the Transference in The Practice of Psychotherapy, volume 16, par. 400