Blindness (2008): Fernando Meirelles Version of Jose Saramago, Starring Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo

Cannes Film Fest 2008 (Opening Night, In Competition)–Fernando Meirelles’ Blindness is an honorable but ultimately disappointing follow-up to his spectacular debut, “City of God,” and his accomplished sophomore effort, “The Constant Gardener,” both superior, Oscar-nominated films.

Of the films Meirelles has directed to date, “Blindness” is his most troubled, least coherent work. ¬†Critical reception to the picture in Cannes was mixed to negative.

An ambitious rendition of the best-selling book (of the same title) by Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago, “Blindness” is a timely yet gloomy film that reflects our zeitgeist in the post 9/11 era.

Miramax will release the film domestically and Focus Features internationally in the fall.

“Blindness” is the kind of fare that deserves attention, even if it doesn’t fulfill expectations from such collaborators as author Saramago, director Meirelles, screenwriter Don McKellar, and a superlative cast, headed by two of the best actors working today: Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo as the central married couple.

Fans of the acclaimed novel and the more discerning critics will be disappointed by Meirelles’ adaptation, particularly in its weak mid-section, which lacks emotional power and is too diffuse, turning the saga into a more earnest and pretentious experience than the powerful source material. To be fair, allegories and metaphors always work more effectively as written texts than as visual presentations.

Thematically, inevitable comparisons will be made with “The Constant Gardener,” Meirelles’ 2005 film, which is also a political parable centering on a troubled marriage, and even more so with Michael Haneke’s existential-apocalyptic saga, “Time of the Wolf,” which world premiered at the 2003 Cannes Festival but few people saw in the U.S. (It was made by Haneke before “Cache” and his English-speaking remake of his own “Funny Games”).

Trying to be at once realistic and metaphoric, “Blindness” tells the story of humanity during an epidemic of mysterious blindness, but it could equally apply to any epidemic, be it AIDS or any other lethal virus. Indeed, in its good moments, which are plentiful, the saga explores human nature at its most complex and ambiguous, the positive and negative dimensions brought out by a disastrous crisis, one that leads to selfishness, opportunism, indifference, and murder, but also encourages empathy, love and understanding above all the will to persevere at all costs, and I mean all costs.

Philosophically, “Blindness” raises such significant questions of the fine line between humanity and inhumanity, order and chaos, asking the question, at what point individuals cease to behave like human beings and turn into the kind of animals solely concerned with survival.

The film’s first reel is quite impressive, replete with mesmerizing ideas, images, and sounds. After a series of close-ups of traffic lights (with red being the most prominent), an overhead shot reveals a traffic jam with hundreds of cars on busy highways. A sudden scream of an Asian male while driving, “I am getting blind,” leads to good behavior from a stranger (Don McKellar), who comes to the rescue with an offer to drive the shocked victim home; later, he will be accused of stealing the Asian’s car.

The chaos and ensuing catastrophe begin suddenly, in a flash, as one man is instantaneously struck blind, his whole world changing into an eerie, milky haze. Finding the right visual elements to illuminate the central theme, Meirelles, his cinematographer Cesar Charlone, and editor Daniel Rezende often pause, turning the screen into an all-white or all-black canvas, imagery that challenges our popular perception of blindnessdoes it signify whiteness or blackness. White and black are colors and symbols that continue to feature prominently throughout the narrative.

In the first act, half a dozen characters are explored in terms of status, class and vision. With the exception of a single woman (Julianne Moore), one by one, they lose their eyesight, forcing them to encounter the same problems and experience the same unsettling fate. First, there’s the seemingly good Samaritan who gives the Asian a lift home, then there is a doctor (Mark Ruffalo), an accountant who is blind from birth (Maury Chaykin), a young boy (Mitchell Nye).

The characters have no specific names, instead they are identified as “First Blind Man” (Yusuke Iseya), “First Blind Man’s Wife” (Yoshino Kimura), “Woman with Dark Glasses” (Alice Braga), “Man with Black Eye Patch” (Danny Glover), and “Bertender” (Gael Garcia Bernal), who becomes the King of Ward Three during the second half of the story, when all the blind people are quarantined.

Namelessness has been often used in modern literature (both novels and plays), but it doesn’t work in a physical medium such as cinema; it makes the characters too symbolic for the viewers to get involved with them.¬† Moreover, if the characters are blind, it’s all the more important for them to have particular names and personalities.¬† The whole movie is bogged down by its self-importance and allegorical weight.

As the contagion–now labeled the “White Blindness”–spreads, panic and paranoia set in across the city. The government, already ineffectual and lacking knowledge of how to handle such a crisis, takes the easy way out. It decides to round up and quarantine the newly blind within a crumbling, abandoned mental asylum.

Early on, a big “secret” is revealed (and I am not spoiling anything), that the doctor’s wife is not blind. Despite her husband’s fears, she is not been affected. Loyal and loving, she insists on going with him to the hospital and later to the asylum, pretending to be blind. Soon, she becomes not only the eyewitness to the events, but also a guide and a leader, finding courage and other resources she didn’t know she had. Moore’s character is the closest the film has to protagonist with a POV: Most of what we see is through her eyes.

Signs of a loving yet troubled marriage, just like in “The Constant Gardener,” albeit for a different reason, are disclosed in the first chapter. The situation becomes tenser when the doctor has hard time accepting her, as he says, as his mother or nurse, anything but a wife. Later, the doctor is caught by his wife having sex with another blind woman, and still later, all the women, including the doctor’s wife, are requested (actually proffered) to provide sexual services to the leaders of Ward Three as a condition for getting food, a commodity in short supply.

Tale’s mid-section, which drags, is weak dramatically and emotionally, despite (or maybe because of) details of the kind of organization that emerges within the asylum, one with peculiar rules and regulation as to sanitation, food, relationships, and even music (on AM radio)-anything that will lend the place a semblance of order or ordinariness, which needless to say are impossible tasks.

For two reels, Meirelles crams the screen with brief scenes and montages that neglect the interpersonal conflicts and push aside the main figures. These chapters become like a catalogue of disaster, unfolding in such rapid way that they don’t let any of the terrific actors dramatically sustained scenes.

This unfortunately includes Julianne Moore’s character. We never get a good sense of her marriage’s devolution because what we see are snippets of dialogue or images. In time, the doctor’s wife leads a makeshift family of seven individuals on a journey through horror and love, depravity and beauty, sacrifice and forgiveness, sadomasochism and altruism, warfare and wonder, all binary concepts that are deliberately juxtaposed and vividly illuminated.

It’s a matter of time before shotguns will be heard, and some victims will carelessly die–they are described by the new blind rulers as “dead fish,” anonymous faces. Suffice is to say that there is effort to break out of the hospital and go back into reality, which now seems to be one huge devastated space populated by homeless people.

Adding to the film’s problems is a pseudo-philosophical voice-over by Danny Glover’s character, which doesn’t contribute much other than adding another perspective and serving as yet another distancing device; most of the running commentary could be eliminated with causing any damage.

As noted, the acting is uneven, and such reliable pros as Gael Garcia Bernal, as the cruel ruler, are particularly disappointing, screaming, yelling, torturing and using his gun, giving the impression that he belongs in another picture.

“Blindness” is a tough, demanding picture, containing some powerful scenes hard to watch, and many others that leave no impact. Without making value judgments, the movie asks viewers to take a stance about behavior during extreme crises, and to contemplate on the dangerous fragility of social order.

Literary Source

In 1995, the acclaimed author Jose Saramago published the novel “Blindness,” an apocalyptic tale about a plague of blindness ravaging first one man, then a whole city, then the entire globe with increasingly devastating fury and speed. Though the story was about a loss of vision, the book opened its readers’ eyes to a new revelatory if depressing view of the world.

The book was celebrated by critics as instant classic, a magnificent parable about our disaster-prone times and metaphoric blindness to sustaining human connections to one another. The tome became an international bestseller, and also led, along with an accomplished body of thought-provoking literature, to Saramago receiving the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Cast

Doctor’s Wife – Julianne Moore
Doctor – Mark Ruffalo
Woman With Dark Glasses – Alice Braga
First Blind Man – Yusuke Iseya
First Blind Man’s Wife – Yoshino Kimura
Thief – Don McKellar
Accountant – Maury Chaykin
Boy – Mitchell Nye
Man With Black Eye Patch – Danny Glover
Bartender/King of Ward Three – Gael Garcia Bernal

Credits

(Canada-Brazil-Japan)
A Miramax Films (in U.S.). Focus Features (international) release of a Focus Features Intl. presentation, with the participation of Telefilm Canada, Movie Central, Fiat, Ontario Film & Television Tax Credit, BNDES, C&A, Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit, of a Rhombus Media (Canada)/O2 Filmes (Brazil)/Bee Vine Pictures (Japan) production. (International sales: Focus Features Intl., London.)
Produced by Niv Fichman, Andrea Barata Ribeiro, Sonoko Sakai.
Executive producers, Gail Egan, Simon Channing Williams, Tom Yoda, Akira Ishii, Victor Loewy.
Co-producers, Bel Berlinck, Sari Friedland. Directed by Fernando Meirelles.
Screenplay, Don McKellar, based on the novel by Jose Saramago.
Camera, Cesar Charlone.
Editor, Daniel Rezende.
Music, Marco Antonio Guimaraes/Uakti.
Production designer, Tule Peake.
Art directors, Joshu de Cartier, Tiago Marques Teixeira.
Set decorators, Erica Milo, Patricia Hinostroza Perla.
Costume designer, Renee April.
Sound, Guilherme Ayrosa; supervising sound editor, Alessandro Laroca.
Re-recording mixers, Lou Solakofski, Armando Torres Jr.
Visual effects supervisor, Andre Waller.
Visual effects, O2 Filmes.
Stunt coordinators, Alison Reid, Helio Febronio.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 119 Minutes