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    Fernando Meirelles’s Blindness – No Exit Game

    By Ron Holloway | July 11, 2008

    Take a book by a Portuguese Nobel Prize winning author (José Saramago), an Oscar-nominated Brazilian director (Fernando Meirelles), and a four-time Oscar nominated actress (Julianne Moore), plus a dozen rather well known actors in supporting roles (Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover, Gael Garcia Bernal, Alice Braga), and the mix seemed right for the opening night at Cannes. But Fernando Meirelles’s Blindness (Brazil/Canada/USA/Japan, 2008) is arthouse fare at best, although the film might be saved for general release with a new version edited down from the present tedious two-hour length.

    The difficulties of adapting José Saramago’s Essay on Blindness (published in 1995) to the screen are apparent. The story is an allegory, not a narrative piece of writing easily shaped into a flowing screenplay The essay, a bestseller written three years before he won the Nobel Prize of Literature, “is a violent book, and I didn’t want it to fall into the wrong hands,” said Saramago in an interview. But Fernando Meirelles, fresh from his triumph at Venice with The Constant Gardener (2005), a international hit that merited an Oscar for actress Rachel Weisz, liked Saramago’s story of an entire city blinded by an eye-afflicting epidemic. Enough, at least, to throw his hat into the ring to obtained the rights from Saramago himself.

    The permission came only after Canadian screenwriter Don McKellar (The Good Samaritan) persuaded Saramago to take a chance by fashioning a script that approached the sensibilities of the Portuguese writer. José Saramago, a former member of the Portuguese Communist Party, had remained an socialist man-of-letters (poems, essays, plays, novels) all his life, one whose parables set against realistic backgrounds enraptured readers after the fall of António Salazar dictatorship in the mid-1970s. In fact, it was Don McKellar who talked a reluctant Saramago into adapting his “essay” for the screen in the first place. McKellar then contacted the Brazilian-based Fernando Meirelles as the proper director to film Blindness.

    It doesn’t take much movie savvy to know that Danny Glover, the friendly black man in the film with a patch over his eye, is José Saramago’s alter ego. His off-screen narration set the tone for the entire film: “I don’t think we did go blind. I think we always were blind. Blind but seeing. People who can see, but do not see.” As for the Meirelles rather pretentious screen allegory, Blindness is set in a big city with the rumble-tumble of honking and yelling Manhattan street life. When an Asian white-collar worker is driving home from his job, he suddenly goes blind at a busy traffic crossing. Helped out a thief, who then aptly uses the opportunity to steal his car, the afflicted man eventually finds his way home to have his wife bring him to a clinic for an eye examination. That’s when it’s assumed that his Asian man’s blindness is triggering an epidemic, for which there is no known cure. The next person to go blind is the eye doctor, then the patients at the clinic. Only the doctor’s wife (Julianne Moore), for whatever reason, remains immune to the illness.

    Hustled off to a fortress-like brig and guarded by heavily armed police, and left there to protect the rest of the urban population, the lone person in the group who can see is the doctor’s wife, who has pretended to be blind in order to accompany her husband to the enclosure. From here on out, Meirelles’s Blindness takes on a Sartre No Exit game of war between the good people and the bad people. As the enclosure is filled with more and more afflicted blind people, the fight for food among the separated wards leads to dictatorship and depravity, as an ex-bartender from Ward Three announces he has a gun and proclaims himself king. Robbery, rape, death, and humiliation follow – until the doctor’s wife finds a way to lead her small flock of followers out of the darkness and into the sunlight – when they find the whole city in ruins and people losing all sense of morality to act like marauding blink scavengers.

    Appropriate to the blind element in the story, Blindness is flushed with the veneer of steel-like digital video shooting (César Charlone), giving the film a futuristic effect. Moreover, the director appears intrigued by the screen possibilities of fantastic nightmares. Otherwise, the story makes little sense. As expected, some veteran Cannes critics ended up handling Fernando Meirelles with kid gloves. After all, it was at the 2002 Cannes festival that his internatonal hit, The City of God (Brazil), was discovered in the International Week of trhe Critics. By contrast, Blindness will be lucky to receive broad international release exposure.

    – Ron Holloway

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