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By Phil Hall | February 18, 2005

Fernanda Montenegro, the great Brazilian actress best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in “Central Station,” is the type of performer who could (to borrow a cliche) enrapture an audience by reading aloud from the telephone book. Unfortunately, Montenegro and her audience, she was not given the telephone book but instead received the screenplay for “The Other Side of the Street,” a lopsided effort which is part-thriller, part-social commentary, and totally forgettable.

Montenegro plays Regina, a lonely elderly woman who fills the emptiness of her life by working as an unpaid informant for the local police. Usually her tips are worthwhile and result in minor arrests, but one evening she picks up her binoculars and witnesses an unusual crime: a man in an apartment across the street has given his wife a fatal injection. Regina’s police report creates a backlash: the killer is a retired judge and the investigation of his crime has created a major backlash within police headquarters. Regina is dropped from the police’s informant ranks, but she is so determined to prove the judge’s guilt that she launches her own covert investigation of the man and his actions. Much to her surprise, her feelings for the judge begin to swing from investigative to romantic.

“The Other Side of the Street” plays like “Rear Window” meets “Murder, She Wrote.” The Regina character is a highly unlikely detective and her obsession with the judge is so blatant that she becomes a figure of pity rather than respect. Punctuating her sleuthing are periods of intense depression in which she ponders her lonely life and advanced age. Estranged from her family and seemingly without close friends (except for a cute dog), the notion of this isolated older woman becoming a vigorous latter-life crimebuster is more than a little contrived.

Yet Montenegro, with her brilliantly expressive face and her always-proper body language, is a joy to behold even when “The Other Side of the Street” becomes too silly. Even when the screenplay is turning her character into a caricature, Montenegro keeps the audience’s attention with the sheer force of her considerable charm and personality. In lesser hands, Regina would’ve come across as a fool. In Montenegro’s performance, it’s a diverting star turn — albeit in a film not worthy of this particular star.

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