Dir: Fernando Meirelles. 2008. Brazil-Canada-Japan. 118mins.
In Blindness, Fernando Meirelles valiantly attempts to pin down Nobel laureate Jose Saramago’s largely metaphorical work of fiction for the big screen: by giving the audience eyes on a world suddenly hit by a plague of blindness. The result makes for a traumatic viewing experience, but never does Mereilles convincingly illuminate the wrenching fear of his source material.
The laudably-ambitious Brazilian director hurls every visual trick in his considerable book at the challenges inherent in making a visual experience out of blindness. The result illuminates the dreadful plight of Julianne Moore’s central character, the only person left in an un-named city who can see the self-created horrors which rapidly befall the unseeing human race. And in a performance which will surely draw awards attention, the actress proves more than up to the task. However, other characterisations feel foreshortened as the story is compressed. Meirelles seems to struggle to find a tone, and Blindness fatally lacks tension before it tips over into bizarre final-act sentimentality.
With the heft of Focus’ international sales infrastructure, Miramax as domestic distributor and the pedigrees of all the principals involved, Blindness will find an audience, possibly in pre-awards season, with enthusiastic marketing. But the film will not launch accompanied by overly-positive notices, and audiences may find the result not sufficiently illuminating to justify watching the degredations onscreen
Unsettlingly, Danny Glover’s narration encapsulates the conclusion - the final lines - of the novel as DoP Cesar Charlone’s desaturated images - red is a standout colour initially - capture the onset of the disease. ‘I don’t think we went blind,’ he says. ‘I think we always were.’ Obviously, the audience isn’t going to be trusted to make that conclusion, which isn’t a good sign. Sitting at a traffic light, The First Blind Man (Iseya; this is a Japanese co-production and some dialogue is in Japanese) suddenly finds his vision has clouded over in a milky white colour.
A seemingly-charitable passerby, the Thief (screenwriter McKellar), drives him home only to abandon him on a level crossing and steal his car. His wife (Kimura) brings him to an opthamologist (Ruffalo), who can find no reason for the sudden onset of blindness. He tells his wife (Moore) about it over dinner. By the next day, everyone has been stricken with the exception of Moore, including all the patients in the Doctor’s waiting room (Braga, Glover) and the people they encountered as well.
Initally, the Government (led by health minister Sandra Oh in an incongruous cameo) reacts by confining the ‘contaminated’ in a dilapidated former mental health facility guarded by a trigger-happy military; here, things abruptly deteriorate. Adapting this, McKellar has a lot of material to compress and he pretty much follows the densely-packed novel faithfully, forcing a breakneck pace. Gael Garcia Bernal makes an entrance as King of Ward Three, an atavistic thug who Bernal plays as if he had the entire film at his disposal for a layered characterisation: he doesn’t.
A brutal gang rape scene is not as horrific as it needs to be; the peril of the starving inmates caught between Ward Three and the military seems lost in artful lighting. A whimsical score almost sabotages the tone; multi-accents in an anonymous city (partially shot in Sao Paolo) should feel appropriate but come across like an old-style concession to producing partnership status.
Highlights include Moore and Ruffalo’s delicately-nuanced relationship, and Alice Braga is perfectly cast as the Woman With Dark Glasses. But as Blindness stumbles to a close, it is liberally and literally showered with sentimentality - a jarring change from what has gone before. And by the end it is clearthat Glover’s voiceover was actually necessary; because Mereilles has lost sight of the novel’s central tenet.
Bee Vine Pictures
(44) 20 7307 1370
Andrea Barata Ribeiro
from the novel by Jose Saramago
Marco Antonio Guimaraes
Gael Garcia Bernal